Category Archives: Criminal Law

Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt

Ankle bracelets are promoted as a humane alternative to jail. But private companies charge defendants hundreds of dollars a month to wear the surveillance devices. If people can’t pay, they may end up behind bars.

by Ava Kofman

On Oct. 12, 2018, Daehaun White walked free, or so he thought. A guard handed him shoelaces and the $19 that had been in his pocket at the time of his booking, along with a letter from his public defender. The lanky 19-year-old had been sitting for almost a month in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a city jail known as the Workhouse, after being pulled over for driving some friends around in a stolen Chevy Cavalier. When the police charged him with tampering with a motor vehicle — driving a car without its owner’s consent — and held him overnight, he assumed he would be released by morning. He told the police that he hadn’t known that the Chevy, which a friend had lent him a few hours earlier, was stolen. He had no previous convictions. But the $1,500 he needed for the bond was far beyond what he or his family could afford. It wasn’t until his public defender, Erika Wurst, persuaded the judge to lower the amount to $500 cash, and a nonprofit fund, the Bail Project, paid it for him, that he was able to leave the notoriously grim jail. “Once they said I was getting released, I was so excited I stopped listening,” he told me recently. He would no longer have to drink water blackened with mold or share a cell with rats, mice and cockroaches. He did a round of victory pushups and gave away all of the snack cakes he had been saving from the cafeteria.

When he finally read Wurst’s letter, however, he realized there was a catch. Even though Wurst had argued against it, the judge, Nicole Colbert-Botchway, had ordered him to wear an ankle monitor that would track his location at every moment using GPS. For as long as he would wear it, he would be required to pay $10 a day to a private company, Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, or EMASS. Just to get the monitor attached, he would have to report to EMASS and pay $300 up front — enough to cover the first 25 days, plus a $50 installation fee.

White didn’t know how to find that kind of money. Before his arrest, he was earning minimum wage as a temp, wrapping up boxes of shampoo. His father was largely absent, and his mother, Lakisha Thompson, had recently lost her job as the housekeeping manager at a Holiday Inn. Raising Daehaun and his four siblings, she had struggled to keep up with the bills. The family bounced between houses and apartments in northern St. Louis County, where, as a result of Jim Crow redlining, most of the area’s black population lives. In 2014, they were living on Canfield Drive in Ferguson when Michael Brown was shot and killed there by a police officer. During the ensuing turmoil, Thompson moved the family to Green Bay, Wisconsin. White felt out of place. He was looked down on for his sagging pants, called the N-word when riding his bike. After six months, he moved back to St. Louis County on his own to live with three of his siblings and stepsiblings in a gray house with vinyl siding.

When White got home on the night of his release, he was so overwhelmed to see his family again that he forgot about the letter. He spent the next few days hanging out with his siblings, his mother, who had returned to Missouri earlier that year, and his girlfriend, Demetria, who was seven months pregnant. He didn’t report to EMASS.

What he didn’t realize was that he had failed to meet a deadline. Typically, defendants assigned to monitors must pay EMASS in person and have the device installed within 24 hours of their release from jail. Otherwise, they have to return to court to explain why they’ve violated the judge’s orders. White, however, wasn’t called back for a hearing. Instead, a week after he left the Workhouse, Colbert-Botchway issued a warrant for his arrest.

Three days later, a large group of police officers knocked on Thompson’s door, looking for information about an unrelated case, a robbery. White and his brother had been making dinner with their mother, and the officers asked them for identification. White’s name matched the warrant issued by Colbert-Botchway. “They didn’t tell me what the warrant was for,” he said. “Just that it was for a violation of my release.” He was taken downtown and held for transfer back to the Workhouse. “I kept saying to myself, ’Why am I locked up?’” he recalled.

Daehaun White couldn’t afford to pay $10 a day to a private company for an ankle monitor after his release from jail.

The next morning, Thompson called the courthouse to find the answer. She learned that her son had been jailed over his failure to acquire and pay for his GPS monitor. To get him out, she needed to pay EMASS on his behalf.

This seemed absurd to her. When Daehaun was 13, she had worn an ankle monitor after violating probation for a minor theft, but the state hadn’t required her to cover the cost of her own supervision. “This is a 19-year-old coming out of the Workhouse,” she told me recently. “There’s no way he has $300 saved.” Thompson felt that the court was forcing her to choose between getting White out of jail and supporting the rest of her family.

Over the past half-century, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped by more than 500%, to 2.2 million. This extraordinary rise, often attributed to decades of “tough on crime” policies and harsh sentencing laws, has ensured that even as crime rates have dropped since the 1990s, the number of people locked up and the average length of their stay have increased. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of keeping people in jails and prisons soared to $87 billion in 2015 from $19 billion in 1980, in current dollars.

In recent years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined criminal-justice reformers in recognizing mass incarceration as both a moral outrage and a fiscal sinkhole. As ankle bracelets have become compact and cost-effective, legislators have embraced them as an enlightened alternative. More than 125,000 people in the criminal-justice system were supervised with monitors in 2015, compared with just 53,000 people in 2005, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although no current national tally is available, data from several cities — Austin, Texas; Indianapolis; Chicago; and San Francisco — show that this number continues to rise. Last December, the First Step Act, which includes provisions for home detention, was signed into law by President Donald Trump with support from the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. These corporations dominate the so-called community-corrections market — services such as day-reporting and electronic monitoring — that represents one of the fastest-growing revenue sectors of their industry.

By far the most decisive factor promoting the expansion of monitors is the financial one. The United States government pays for monitors for some of those in the federal criminal-justice system and for tens of thousands of immigrants supervised by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But states and cities, which incur around 90% of the expenditures for jails and prisons, are increasingly passing the financial burden of the devices onto those who wear them. It costs St. Louis roughly $90 a day to detain a person awaiting trial in the Workhouse, where in 2017 the average stay was 291 days. When individuals pay EMASS $10 a day for their own supervision, it costs the city nothing. A 2014 study by NPR and the Brennan Center found that, with the exception of Hawaii, every state required people to pay at least part of the costs associated with GPS monitoring. Some probation offices and sheriffs run their own monitoring programs — renting the equipment from manufacturers, hiring staff and collecting fees directly from participants. Others have outsourced the supervision of defendants, parolees and probationers to private companies.

“There are a lot of judges who reflexively put people on monitors, without making much of a pretense of seriously weighing it at all,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior legal adviser with Human Rights Watch who has researched private-supervision companies. “The limiting factor is the cost it might impose on the public, but when that expense is sourced out, even that minimal brake on judicial discretion goes out the window.”

Nowhere is the pressure to adopt monitors more pronounced than in places like St. Louis: cash-strapped municipalities with large populations of people awaiting trial. Nationwide on any given day, half a million people sit in crowded and expensive jails because, like Daehaun White, they cannot purchase their freedom.

As the movement to overhaul cash bail has challenged the constitutionality of jailing these defendants, judges and sheriffs have turned to monitors as an appealing substitute. In San Francisco, the number of people released from jail onto electronic monitors tripled after a 2018 ruling forced courts to release more defendants without bail. In Marion County, Indiana, where jail overcrowding is routine, roughly 5,000 defendants were put on monitors last year. “You would be hard-pressed to find bail-reform legislation in any state that does not include the possibility of electronic monitoring,” said Robin Steinberg, the chief executive of the Bail Project.

Yet like the system of wealth-based detention they are meant to help reform, ankle monitors often place poor people in special jeopardy. Across the country, defendants who have not been convicted of a crime are put on “offender funded” payment plans for monitors that sometimes cost more than their bail. And unlike bail, they don’t get the payment back, even if they’re found innocent. Although a federal survey shows that nearly 40% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency, companies and courts routinely threaten to lock up defendants if they fall behind on payment. In Greenville, South Carolina, pretrial defendants can be sent back to jail when they fall three weeks behind on fees. (An officer for the Greenville County Detention Center defended this practice on the grounds that participants agree to the costs in advance.) In Mohave County, Arizona, pretrial defendants charged with sex offenses have faced rearrest if they fail to pay for their monitors, even if they prove that they can’t afford them. “We risk replacing an unjust cash-bail system,” Steinberg said, “with one just as unfair, inhumane and unnecessary.”

Many local judges, including in St. Louis, do not conduct hearings on a defendant’s ability to pay for private supervision before assigning them to it; those who do often overestimate poor people’s financial means. Without judicial oversight, defendants are vulnerable to private-supervision companies that set their own rates and charge interest when someone can’t pay up front. Some companies even give their employees bonuses for hitting collection targets.

It’s not only debt that can send defendants back to jail. People who may not otherwise be candidates for incarceration can be punished for breaking the lifestyle rules that come with the devices. A survey in California found that juveniles awaiting trial or on probation face especially difficult rules; in one county, juveniles on monitors were asked to follow more than 50 restrictions, including not participating “in any social activity.” For this reason, many advocates describe electronic monitoring as a “net-widener": Far from serving as an alternative to incarceration, it ends up sweeping more people into the system.

Dressed in a baggy yellow City of St. Louis Corrections shirt, White was walking to the van that would take him back to the Workhouse after his rearrest, when a guard called his name and handed him a bus ticket home. A few hours earlier, his mom had persuaded her sister to lend her the $300 that White owed EMASS. Wurst, his public defender, brought the receipt to court.

The next afternoon, White hitched a ride downtown to the EMASS office, where one of the company’s bond-compliance officers, Nick Buss, clipped a black box around his left ankle. Based in the majority white city of St. Charles, west of St. Louis, EMASS has several field offices throughout eastern Missouri. A former probation and parole officer, Michael Smith, founded the company in 1991 after Missouri became one of the first states to allow private companies to supervise some probationers. (Smith and other EMASS officials declined to comment for this story.)

The St. Louis area has made national headlines for its “offender funded” model of policing and punishment. Stricken by postindustrial decline and the 2008 financial crisis, its municipalities turned to their police departments and courts to make up for shortfalls in revenue. In 2015, the Ferguson Report by the United States Department of Justice put hard numbers to what black residents had long suspected: The police were targeting them with disproportionate arrests, traffic tickets and excessive fines.

EMASS may have saved the city some money, but it also created an extraordinary and arbitrary-seeming new expense for poor defendants. When cities cover the cost of monitoring, they often pay private contractors $2 to $3 a day for the same equipment and services for which EMASS charges defendants $10 a day. To come up with the money, EMASS clients told me, they had to find second jobs, take their children out of day care and cut into disability checks. Others hurried to plead guilty for no better reason than that being on probation was cheaper than paying for a monitor.

At the downtown office, White signed a contract stating that he would charge his monitor for an hour and a half each day and “report” to EMASS with $70 each week. He could shower, but was not to bathe or swim (the monitor is water-resistant, not waterproof). Interfering with the monitor’s functioning was a felony.

The St. Louis office of EMASS, which charges defendants $300 up front to get the monitor attached.

White assumed that GPS supervision would prove a minor annoyance. Instead, it was a constant burden. The box was bulky and the size of a fist, so he couldn’t hide it under his jeans. Whenever he left the house, people stared. There were snide comments ("nice bracelet") and cutting jokes. His brothers teased him about having a babysitter. “I’m nobody to watch,” he insisted.

The biggest problem was finding work. Confident and outgoing, White had never struggled to land jobs; after dropping out of high school in his junior year, he flipped burgers at McDonald’s and Steak ’n Shake. To pay for the monitor, he applied to be a custodian at Julia Davis Library, a cashier at Home Depot, a clerk at Menards. The conversation at Home Depot had gone especially well, White thought, until the interviewer casually asked what was on his leg.

To help improve his chances, he enrolled in Mission: St. Louis, a job-training center for people reentering society. One afternoon in January, he and a classmate role-played how to talk to potential employers about criminal charges. White didn’t know how much detail to go into. Should he tell interviewers that he was bringing his pregnant girlfriend some snacks when he was pulled over? He still isn’t sure, because a police officer came looking for him midway through the class. The battery on his monitor had died. The officer sent him home, and White missed the rest of the lesson.

With all of the restrictions and rules, keeping a job on a monitor can be as difficult as finding one. The hours for weekly check-ins at the downtown EMASS office — 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays — are inconvenient for those who work. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice surveyed 5,000 people on electronic monitors and found that 22% said they had been fired or asked to leave a job because of the device. Juawanna Caves, a young St. Louis native and mother of two, was placed on a monitor in December after being charged with unlawful use of a weapon. She said she stopped showing up to work as a housekeeper when her co-workers made her uncomfortable by asking questions and later lost a job at a nursing home because too many exceptions had to be made for her court dates and EMASS check-ins.

Perpetual surveillance also takes a mental toll. Nearly everyone I spoke to who wore a monitor described feeling trapped, as though they were serving a sentence before they had even gone to trial. White was never really sure about what he could or couldn’t do under supervision. In January, when his girlfriend had their daughter, Rylan, White left the hospital shortly after the birth, under the impression that he had a midnight curfew. Later that night, he let his monitor die so that he could sneak back before sunrise to see the baby again.

EMASS makes its money from defendants. But it gets its power over them from judges. It was in 2012 that the judges of the St. Louis court started to use the company’s services — which previously involved people on probation for misdemeanors — for defendants awaiting trial. Last year, the company supervised 239 defendants in the city of St. Louis on GPS monitors, according to numbers provided by EMASS to the court. The alliance with the courts gives the company not just a steady stream of business but a reliable means of recouping debts: Unlike, say, a credit-card company, which must file a civil suit to collect from overdue customers, EMASS can initiate criminal-court proceedings, threatening defendants with another stay in the Workhouse.

In early April, I visited Judge Rex Burlison in his chambers on the 10th floor of the St. Louis civil courts building. A few months earlier, Burlison, who has short gray hair and light blue eyes, had been elected by his peers as presiding judge, overseeing the city’s docket, budget and operations, including the contract with EMASS. It was one of the first warm days of the year, and from the office window I could see sunlight glimmering on the silver Gateway Arch.

I asked Burlison about the court’s philosophy for using pretrial GPS. He stressed that while each case was unique and subject to the judge’s discretion, monitoring was most commonly used for defendants who posed a flight risk, endangered public safety or had an alleged victim. Judges vary in how often they order defendants to wear monitors, and critics have attacked the inconsistency. Colbert-Botchway, the judge who put White on a monitor, regularly made pretrial GPS a condition of release, according to public defenders. (Colbert-Botchway declined to comment.) But another St. Louis city judge, David Roither, told me, “I really don’t use it very often because people here are too poor to pay for it.”

Whenever a defendant on a monitor violates a condition of release, whether related to payment or a curfew or something else, EMASS sends a letter to the court. Last year, Burlison said, the court received two to three letters a week from EMASS about violations. In response, the judge usually calls the defendant in for a hearing. As far as he knew, Burlison said, judges did not incarcerate people simply for failing to pay EMASS debts. “Why would you?” he asked me. When people were put back in jail, he said, there were always other factors at play, like the defendant’s missing a hearing, for instance. (Issuing a warrant for White’s arrest without a hearing, he acknowledged after looking at the docket, was not the court’s standard practice.)

The contract with EMASS allows the court to assign indigent defendants to the company to oversee “at no cost.” Yet neither Burlison nor any of the other current or former judges I spoke with recalled waiving fees when ordering someone to wear an ankle monitor. When I asked Burlison why he didn’t, he said that he was concerned that if he started to make exceptions on the basis of income, the company might stop providing ankle-monitoring services in St. Louis.

“People get arrested because of life choices,” Burlison said. “Whether they’re good for the charge or not, they’re still arrested and have to deal with it, and part of dealing with it is the finances.” To release defendants without monitors simply because they can’t afford the fee, he said, would be to disregard the safety of their victims or the community. “We can’t just release everybody because they’re poor,” he continued.

But many people in the Workhouse awaiting trial are poor. In January, civil rights groups filed suit against the city and the court, claiming that the St. Louis bail system violated the Constitution, in part by discriminating against those who can’t afford to post bail. That same month, the Missouri Supreme Court announced new rules that urged local courts to consider releasing defendants without monetary conditions and to waive fees for poor people placed on monitors. Shortly before the rules went into effect, on July 1, Burlison said that the city intends to shift the way ankle monitors are distributed and plans to establish a fund to help indigent defendants pay for their ankle bracelets. But he said he didn’t know how much money would be in the fund or whether it was temporary or permanent. The need for funding could grow quickly. The pending bail lawsuit has temporarily spurred the release of more defendants from custody, and as a result, public defenders say, the demand for monitors has increased.

Judges are anxious about what people released without posting bail might do once they get out. Several told me that monitors may ensure that the defendants return to court. Not unlike doctors who order a battery of tests for a mildly ill patient to avoid a potential malpractice suit, judges seem to view monitors as a precaution against their faces appearing on the front page of the newspaper. “Every judge’s fear is to let somebody out on recognizance and he commits murder, and then everyone asks, ’How in the hell was this person let out?’” said Robert Dierker, who served as a judge in St. Louis from 1986 to 2017 and now represents the city in the bail lawsuit. “But with GPS, you can say, ’Well, I have him on GPS, what else can I do?’”

Critics of monitors contend that their public-safety appeal is illusory: If defendants are intent on harming someone or skipping town, the bracelet, which can be easily removed with a pair of scissors, would not stop them. Studies showing that people tracked by GPS appear in court more reliably are scarce, and research about its effectiveness as a deterrent is inconclusive.

“The fundamental question is, What purpose is electronic monitoring serving?” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm in St. Louis that is one of several firms representing the plaintiffs in the bail lawsuit. “If the only purpose it’s serving is to make judges feel better because they don’t want to be on the hook if something goes wrong, then that’s not a sensible approach. We should not simply be monitoring for monitoring’s sake.”

Electronic monitoring was first conceived in the early 1960s by Ralph and Robert Gable, identical twins studying at Harvard under the psychologists Timothy Leary and B.F. Skinner, respectively. Influenced in part by Skinner’s theories of positive reinforcement, the Gables rigged up some surplus missile-tracking equipment to monitor teenagers on probation; those who showed up at the right places at the right times were rewarded with movie tickets, limo rides and other prizes.

Although this round-the-clock monitoring was intended as a tool for rehabilitation, observers and participants alike soon recognized its potential to enhance surveillance. All but two of the 16 volunteers in their initial study dropped out, finding the two bulky radio transmitters oppressive. “They felt like it was a prosthetic conscience, and who would want Mother all the time along with you?” Robert Gable told me. Psychology Today labeled the invention a “belt from Big Brother.”

The reality of electronic monitoring today is that Big Brother is watching some groups more than others. No national statistics are available on the racial breakdown of Americans wearing ankle monitors, but all indications suggest that mass supervision, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affects black people. In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, black people make up 24% of the population, and 67% of those on monitors. The sociologist Simone Browne has connected contemporary surveillance technologies like GPS monitors to America’s long history of controlling where black people live, move and work. In her 2015 book, “Dark Matters,” she traces the ways in which “surveillance is nothing new to black folks,” from the branding of enslaved people and the shackling of convict laborers to Jim Crow segregation and the home visits of welfare agencies. These historical inequities, Browne notes, influence where and on whom new tools like ankle monitors are imposed.

For some black families, including White’s, monitoring stretches across generations. Annette Taylor, the director of Ripple Effect, an advocacy group for prisoners and their families based in Champaign, Illinois, has seen her ex-husband, brother, son, nephew and sister’s husband wear ankle monitors over the years. She had to wear one herself, about a decade ago, she said, for driving with a suspended license. “You’re making people a prisoner of their home,” she told me. When her son was paroled and placed on house arrest, he couldn’t live with her, because he was forbidden to associate with people convicted of felonies, including his stepfather, who was also on house arrest.

Some people on monitors are further constrained by geographic restrictions — areas in the city or neighborhood that they can’t go without triggering an alarm. James Kilgore, a research scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, has cautioned that these exclusionary zones could lead to “e-gentrification,” effectively keeping people out of more-prosperous neighborhoods. In 2016, after serving four years in prison for drug conspiracy, Bryan Otero wore a monitor as a condition of parole. He commuted from the Bronx to jobs at a restaurant and a department store in Manhattan, but he couldn’t visit his family or doctor because he was forbidden to enter a swath of Manhattan between 117th Street and 131st Street. “All my family and childhood friends live in that area,” he said. “I grew up there.”

Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and columnist for The Times, has argued that monitoring engenders a new form of oppression under the guise of progress. In her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow,” she wrote that the term “mass incarceration” should refer to the “system that locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls — walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow laws once did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship.”

As the cost of monitoring continues to fall, those who are required to submit to it may worry less about the expense and more about the intrusive surveillance. The devices, some of which are equipped with two-way microphones, can give corrections officials unprecedented access to the private lives not just of those monitored but also of their families and friends. GPS location data appeals to the police, who can use it to investigate crimes. Already the goal is both to track what individuals are doing and to anticipate what they might do next. BI Incorporated, an electronic-monitoring subsidiary of GEO Group, has the ability to assign risk scores to the behavioral patterns of those monitored, so that law enforcement can “address potential problems before they happen.” Judges leery of recidivism have begun to embrace risk-assessment tools. As a result, defendants who have yet to be convicted of an offense in court may be categorized by their future chances of reoffending.

The combination of GPS location data with other tracking technologies such as automatic license-plate readers represents an uncharted frontier for finer-grained surveillance. In some cities, police have concentrated these tools in neighborhoods of color. A CityLab investigation found that Baltimore police were more likely to deploy the Stingray — the controversial and secretive cellphone tracking technology — where African Americans lived. In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, the police spied on Black Lives Matter protesters with face recognition technology. Given this pattern, the term “electronic monitoring” may soon refer not just to a specific piece of equipment but to an all-encompassing strategy.

If the evolution of the criminal-justice system is any guide, it is very likely that the ankle bracelet will go out of fashion. Some GPS monitoring vendors have already started to offer smartphone applications that verify someone’s location through voice and face recognition. These apps, with names like Smart-LINK and Shadowtrack, promise to be cheaper and more convenient than a boxy bracelet. They’re also less visible, mitigating the stigma and normalizing surveillance. While reducing the number of people in physical prison, these seductive applications could, paradoxically, increase its reach. For the nearly 4.5 million Americans on probation or parole, it is not difficult to imagine a virtual prison system as ubiquitous — and invasive — as Instagram or Facebook.

On Jan. 24, exactly three months after White had his monitor installed, his public defender successfully argued in court for its removal. His phone service had been shut off because he had fallen behind on the bill, so his mother told him the good news over video chat.

When White showed up to EMASS a few days later to have the ankle bracelet removed, he said, one of the company’s employees told him that he couldn’t take off his monitor until he paid his debt. White offered him the $35 in his wallet — all the money he had. It wasn’t enough. The employee explained that he needed to pay at least half of the $700 he owed. Somewhere in the contract he had signed months earlier, White had agreed to pay his full balance “at the time of removal.” But as White saw it, the court that had ordered the monitor’s installation was now ordering its removal. Didn’t that count?

“That’s the only thing that’s killing me,” White told me a few weeks later, in early March. “Why are you all not taking it off?” We were in his brother’s room, which, unlike White’s down the hall, had space for a wobbly chair. White sat on the bed, his head resting against the frame, while his brother sat on the other end by the TV, mumbling commands into a headset for the fantasy video game Fortnite. By then, the prosecutor had offered White two to three years of probation in exchange for a plea. (White is waiting to hear if he has been accepted into the city’s diversion program for “youthful offenders,” which would allow him to avoid pleading and wipe the charges from his record in a year.)

White was wearing a loosefitting Nike track jacket and red sweats that bunched up over the top of his monitor. He had recently stopped charging it, and so far, the police hadn’t come knocking. “I don’t even have to have it on,” he said, looking down at his ankle. “But without a job, I can’t get it taken off.” In the last few weeks, he had sold his laptop, his phone and his TV. That cash went to rent, food and his daughter, and what was left barely made a dent in what he owed EMASS.

It was a Monday — a check-in day — but he hadn’t been reporting for the past couple of weeks. He didn’t see the point; he didn’t have the money to get the monitor removed and the office was an hour away by bus. I offered him a ride.

EMASS check-ins take place in a three-story brick building with a low-slung facade draped in ivy. The office doesn’t take cash payments, and a Western Union is conveniently located next door. The other men in the waiting room were also wearing monitors. When it was White’s turn to check-in, Buss, the bond-compliance officer, unclipped the band from his ankle and threw the device into a bin, White said. He wasn’t sure why EMASS had now softened its approach, but his debts nonetheless remained.

Buss calculated the money White owed going back to November: $755, plus 10% annual interest. Over the next nine months, EMASS expected him to make monthly payments that would add up to $850 — more than the court had required for his bond. White looked at the receipt and shook his head. “I get in trouble for living,” he said as he walked out of the office. “For being me.”


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica, an investigative news agency.

 

 

 

Protecting your child, lessons from “When They See Us”

By Randall Hill

I recently finished, Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us" a four-part mini-series on Netflix that tells the story of the Central Park 5; five black and brown teenage boys who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman and spent between 6 to 14 years in prison. If you have not yet seen this movie, I highly recommend that you do. The trailer for "When They See Us" is below. 

The film drives homes what can happen when a person doesn't know their rights or how to exercise them. Ironically, the mother of Yusef Salaam understood her son's rights and took the right steps to protect him, however, lack of knowledge of the other parents resulted in Yusef going to jail with the others.

"When They See Us" provides lessons about our criminal justice system that all African-Americans need to be aware of. If you're a black parent, watch it with your kids or at least make sure they see the series as part of their education about the U.S. justice system. Ava DuVernay discussed the film and the criminal justice system with Trevor Noah in the video below:

Children in juvenile court proceedings do not enjoy the same constitutional rights as adults. Prior to the civil rights era in the 1960s, juveniles had few due process rights at all.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that there’s no jury-trial right in juvenile delinquency proceedings. (McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971).) However, minors tried in adult systems are entitled to juries.

A child’s statements to police can be used against them in court proceedings, however, only when the statements are voluntary and given freely. The government may not coerce confessions, as provided by the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and the due-process prohibition against admitting involuntary confessions into court. However, forced confessions are not easy to prove. Parents need to teach their children not to say anything to police without a parent or attorney present.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police can use deception and are allowed to falsely claim that a friend or acquaintance has confessed or implicated someone when in fact he/she had not (Frazier v. Cupp, 1969). The police can claim to have found a suspect's fingerprints at a crime scene when there were none (Oregon v. Mathiason, 1977), determining such acts insufficient for rendering the defendant's confession inadmissible. State courts have permitted police to deceive suspects about a range of factual matters, including, for example, falsely stating that incriminating DNA evidence and satellite photography of the crime scene exist (State v. Nightingale, 2012).

Children need to be trained on how to respond when stopped or detained by police. Police officers must have probable cause to search and arrest a minor who is suspected of violating a criminal statute. Minors like adults have the right to remain silent and are not required to answer questions. There are exceptions 

  • In some states, you must provide your name to law enforcement officers if you are stopped and told to identify yourself. But even if you give your name, you are not required to answer other questions.
  • If you are driving and you are pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer can require you to show your license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance (but you do not have to answer questions).
  • Even if you have already answered some questions, you can refuse to answer other questions until you have a lawyer.
  • Keep in mind that lying to a government official is a crime but remaining silent until you consult with a lawyer is not.

Reverse Miranda

When my sons were minors, I required them to keep a reverse Miranda card in their wallets that stated the following:

To: Any agent, law enforcement officer, or representative of the government 

My Name is: X Hill – I am a minor child, following my parent’s instructions.

If you have been presented with this, then you have detained me against my will. I wish to be released at once. If you believe you have a legal reason for still holding me, then it must be for one of two reasons: 

1. You believe I have information relevant to a case or investigation and need my assistance. I am happy to comply and will in no way obstruct justice. Simply type up your questions and contact my parent/s (R or C Hill 314-xxx-xxxx). Upon review by them and any attorney they so choose, I will answer any and all that they and their attorney advise me to. Please do not argue about this, or it will delay the investigation, and neither of us wants that. 

2. You believe that I have committed a crime. I want to speak with my parent/s and/or the attorney they provide me and do not wish to answer any questions or make any statement until I do. You may contact my parents at 314-xxx-xxxx, alternate contact, grandmother 314-xxx-xxxx

While doing those things, please see to it that I am given food, drink, and bathroom breaks frequently, as I will not ask. Please do not ask that I fill out, sign, initial, check off, or in any way mark anything for any reason. I have been forbidden to do this by my parent/s until they and/or their attorney, can review any such documents. 

Finally, please do not interpret my silence as rudeness, guilt, retardation or anything else but what it is – obedience to my parent/s and their attorney. 

Prison Industrial Complex

Locking up prisoners is big business. The three largest private prison corporations CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Geo Group, and MTC take in $5 billion in revenue a year. If you bank with Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, BNP, and U.S. Bancorp, you may have helped finance private prisons.

In addition to private prisons, there are corporations that contract cheap prison labor, construction companies, surveillance technology vendors, companies that operate prison food services and medical facilities, prison guard unions, phone companies, private probation companies, lawyers, and lobby groups that represent them. "The Prison Industrial Complex: Mapping Private Sector Players” exposes over 3,900 companies profiting off mass incarceration.

Private prison inmates earn as little as 17 cents per hour. Companies including: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more have profited from prison labor.

It Begins Early

School districts thru zero tolerance policies often trap disadvantaged kids in the school to prison pipeline that can unfairly introduce them into the criminal justice system. Black students, in particular, are more likely to be arrested in school for minor behavior issues. 

When my youngest son was in grade school, the principal shared some startling information, the number of prisons built are based on third-grade reading scores. This is supposed to be an urban myth, however, test scores are used to make some predictions. During my son's freshman year in high school, I had to appeal an excessive penalty for horseplay.  

You owe it to yourself and your children to use Court.rchp.com and other resources to educate yourself about the law and our legal system. As "When They See Us" demonstrated, we're only as strong as our weakest link.

If it pleases the Prosecution

Every country with a functioning criminal justice system depends on prosecutors, the attorneys who charge defendants with crimes and build the case to convict. But the ones in the US are a breed apart. They are more than agents of the court: Top prosecutors in every US county typically have to run for the office, making them elected officials as well. No other nation in the world elects its prosecutors, and few give them so much power.

Prosecutors in the US have broad discretion over how and when to press their cases, which means they often control the fates of defendants, says Stanford Law School professor David Alan Sklansky. In a 2018 paper published in the Annual Review of Criminology, Sklansky notes that prosecutors are increasingly blamed for the problems that plague US criminal justice — its excessive severity, its lopsided targeting of racial minorities and its propensity for error. Part of the difficulty, he suggests, is the largely unchecked power of prosecutors.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any major nation. And the prison population looks far different from the country as a whole. More than 75 percent of the residents of the US identify as white and about 13 percent identify as black. But at the end of 2016, black inmates outnumbered white inmates by 487,000 to 440,000. One report found that black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at an average rate five times that of white Americans.

Black men also receive federal prison sentences that are on average almost 20 percent longer than those of white men who commit the same crime. When prosecutors offer a plea deal, white defendants are 25 percent more likely than black defendants to have their most serious initial charge dropped or reduced to a less severe charge. And there are a disturbing number of cases in which prosecutorial misconduct has led to convictions that later are overturned on appeal. In one famous case from 1987, prosecutors removed all four potential black members from a jury that later convicted a black man named Timothy Foster of murder. The prosecutors denied that they were motivated by race during jury selection. Years later, Foster’s lawyers obtained prosecutors’ notes and the Supreme Court declared, by a vote of 7-1, that the jury selection in his trial was unconstitutional.

In another case, Anthony Graves, a 26-year-old black man in Texas, was wrongfully convicted in 1994 of murdering a family of six. He ended up spending 18 years behind bars, including 12 years on death row. The real murderer, Robert Carter, eventually confessed that he had acted alone, and investigations showed that the prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, withheld testimony that would have cleared Graves.

A growing chorus of legal scholars and reform-minded prosecutors has called for a new approach that would restore fairness and justice to the prosecutorial process. But Sklansky says reform won’t come easy. Any meaningful change must start with disentangling prosecutors from conflicting roles that straddle the legal and political systems. In other words, he says, we must be clearer about what we want from prosecutors.

Sklansky spoke with Knowable about the rise of prosecutors and the need for reforms to restore fairness and justice. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the biggest problem with prosecutors in the US?

It’s hard to say. There are actually several different problems with US prosecutors. One is that they have so much power to coerce guilty pleas, another is that they have almost unbridled discretion over how to use that power. A third is that prosecutors are often overzealous and break the rules, and a fourth is that they are sometime unimaginative about how to use their discretion more constructively.

Texas attorney Charles Sebesta, shown here in front of a county courthouse, was disbarred in 2015 after an investigation found he withheld crucial testimony that would have cleared a man of murder. Anthony Graves spent 18 years behind bars before being released.

But I think the most fundamental problem may be that we have complicated and often contradictory expectations for prosecutors. We want them to be impartial but also to be forceful advocates, to follow the law but also to exercise mercy, and to work closely with the police but also to stand apart from them.

The conflicting expectations for prosecutors, and the ambiguity regarding their role, can make it difficult to regulate them, and difficult for prosecutors themselves to know what it means to do their job well.

Are prosecutors really more powerful than judges?

In many cases, yes. That’s partly due to a surge in statutes calling for mandatory minimum sentences for a wide range of crimes. Because judges have little ability to lower the sentences called for in these statutes, often the only way for defendants to avoid these penalties is to strike a deal with prosecutors — or take their chances at trial. Because prosecutors can threaten such draconian sentences, they have tremendous power to coerce guilty pleas.

Do current laws make it difficult for prosecutors to achieve fair verdicts and sentences?

I wouldn’t say that the laws make it hard for prosecutors to achieve fair results. But they do make it complicated. Some laws — especially many of the laws calling for harsh mandatory sentences — can be unjust when applied to particular cases. So doing justice will often mean being judicious about when these laws should be invoked.

And then there are procedural rules that require prosecutors to take off their advocate’s hat and be fair and impartial. Prosecutors are often called on to decide, for example, when evidence that could be helpful to the defense needs to be disclosed. That’s like asking basketball players to call their own fouls.

We won’t be able to eliminate the ambiguity of the prosecutor’s role, and we should continue to pressure prosecutors to be impartial. But we need to be relatively realistic about how well we can expect them to navigate these conflicting expectations.

Why don’t prosecutors use their powers more fairly?

Again, it’s important to stress that many prosecutors work hard to be impartial, and many do an admirable job of exercising their powers in a balanced, thoughtful way. But many prosecutors’ offices have a culture of competitiveness, and courtroom victories are the primary measure of their success. Prosecutors are attracted to the job partly because of the excitement of legal combat. Too often, convictions and long sentences get celebrated, even if they are undeserved.

It’s hard to shift prosecutors’ priorities from victory to justice. Prosecutors don’t get their names in the newspaper because they worked out a reasonable compromise. “So-and-so convicted on all counts” is an easy headline to write.

If prosecutors want to achieve true justice for defendants, they need to ask themselves some tough questions that go beyond convictions and acquittals — questions that can be very difficult to answer. Have they helped to resolve cases in ways that are equitable and humane? Have they helped move the community forward?

Why do we keep learning about cases where prosecutors have failed to disclose evidence that would help the defense?

Prosecutors have vastly more investigative resources at their disposal than defense attorneys, so they often have more access to information and evidence. Prosecutors are required to share evidence with the defense only if it could help the defendant in a significant way. But because they’re so motivated to win, it can be very hard for prosecutors to objectively decide whether the evidence they’ve uncovered is worth sharing. They have an incentive to convince themselves it isn’t.

Is there a lack of diversity among prosecutors, and does that contribute to unfair and discriminatory practices?

Prosecutors’ offices generally don’t disclose statistics on racial and gender demographics, so we don’t know much about prosecutor diversity. A few years ago, some of my students at Stanford Law School carried out research on the race and gender of prosecutors in California. As far as I know, this was the first time that comprehensive statistics of this kind were compiled for prosecutors in any state. And what the students found was that prosecutors in California are far whiter than the state as a whole.

That matters. There’s very good reason to believe that when prosecutors don’t reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve, it skews their decision-making. Diversity reduces systemic bias and makes it easier for prosecutors to take into account the perspectives of all parts of the community.

Racial diversity is never a panacea. Just as police departments aren’t magically transformed by employing more minority officers, we can’t fix prosecutors’ offices simply be electing or hiring people from different backgrounds. But when prosecutor offices are as diverse as the communities they serve, they bring different skills and perspectives and give fairer consideration to all the factors that should go into prosecutorial decision-making.

Other than increasing diversity, how else could the system be improved?

We need safeguards against prosecutorial power. Strengthening the resources of defense attorneys would be an important step. The vast majority of criminal defendants in the US are represented by appointed counsel, because they’re too poor to hire their own lawyers, and we’ve known for decades that we don’t pay enough to appointed defense attorneys or employ enough of them; they’re overworked and under-resourced. We need to invest more in defense if we want the system to operate properly.

Legislatures can help by rolling back mandatory sentences and by strengthening and clarifying the rules requiring prosecutors to share evidence with defense counsel.

More judicial oversight could also make a big difference. Judges could reclaim some of their power by tightening the rules that require prosecutors to share evidence with the defense. They could force prosecutors to explain and justify their charging decisions and their plea bargaining offers in court. In many courts, judges have the authority to dismiss cases in the interest of justice, such as when prosecutors pursue draconian sentences.

But in order for any of that happen, there would need to be something of a change of judicial mindset; judges would need to believe that prosecutors should be held more accountable, and to believe that it’s part of the business of the judiciary to make that happen.

Finally, there is much that prosecutors themselves can do — and in many places, are doing — to make the system fairer, less discriminatory and less damaging. They don’t need to wait for legislation mandating more disclosure of evidence; they can start doing that on their own. They can stop using unreasonably long mandatory minimum sentences to coerce guilty pleas. And they can work to change the cultures of their offices, so that fair outcomes are celebrated and not just courtroom victories.

Is reform on the horizon?

To some extent, yes. We’re in an unusual moment now because there is great attention to reforming prosecutors’ offices through the ballot box. Criminal justice crusaders have devoted more attention to elections over the last decade. As a result, we have a growing number of head prosecutors who’ve won elections based on a platform of pulling back on mass incarceration and seeking a more balanced approach to criminal justice. For the most part, though, this wave of reform isn’t doing anything to reduce the power of prosecutors’ offices.

How significant is the criminal justice reform bill that passed at the federal level in 2018?

It’s a step in the right direction, although it affects only federal prosecutors. The law modestly cuts back on mandatory minimum sentences and allows federal judges to hand down sentences lower than the statutory minimums without any motion from the prosecutor. That means that federal prosecutors, in some cases, won’t have quite as heavy a hammer to use in pressuring defendants to plead guilty. The new law is important symbolically, even for state prosecutors. It’s a signal of the growing consensus in the US that criminal justice has veered too far in the direction of severity, and that tougher isn’t always better.

What if wider reform doesn’t happen?

If there’s no reform, we’ll likely continue to face the dire problems of the criminal justice system: mass incarceration, excessively long sentences, wrongful convictions and racial bias. Prosecutors have helped to create all of these problems, and they have a critical role in solving them.

Read more about prosecutors

The Fast Track to a US Attorney’s Office — this Harvard Law School guide describes the prosecutor’s role and the paths to becoming one.

Stuck in the ’70s: The Demographics of California Prosecutors — a 2015 paper co-authored by David Alan Sklansky examines the gender and race of the state’s prosecutors.

Prosecution in America — covers the history and the unique aspects of US prosecutors.

The Origins of Public Prosecution at Common Law — the origins and development of prosecutorial roles through history.


Republished with permission under license from Knowable Magazine.

 

Should children as young as 12 be sent to juvenile detention?

 Natalia Orendain, University of California, Los Angeles

Children under 12 will no longer be treated as criminals in the state of California when they break the law, based on a new law that went into effect on Jan. 1.

File 20181221 103631 1d7qh7z.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Youth detention center in Atlanta. AP Photo/David Goldman

Before the law was passed, California had no minimum age for sending children to juvenile court – and that’s still true of most states. That means that in many places, children as young as six, for example, can be arrested and detained.

In Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, Colorado and other states, the minimum age is 10. Many California state legislators believe that setting a higher standard, 12 years old, will protect younger children from the dangers that come with juvenile detention. And, given that California’s juvenile justice system houses the largest number of youth in the United States and even the world, their stance may influence how other states set their standards for criminal responsibility.

I am a doctoral student studying neuroscience at UCLA. In my lab, we are examining how time spent confined in juvenile facilities affects brain development and behavior. To do so, we study a range of experiences kids encounter when confined, from the good – increased daily structure – to the terrible – assault by other youth and staff. Our study is just beginning, but previous research has shown that the majority of youth experience abuse while confined and show structural brain changes similar to individuals who have experienced lifetime trauma exposure.

What happens in juvenile detention?

Juvenile facilities function as prisons for youth. The key difference between adult prisons and juvenile facilities is that the latter advocate for rehabilitation.

That’s because young people, usually until their mid- to late 20’s, have brains that are still developing and so have the capacity for change – what scientists often refer to as “plasticity.”

Every year, over 1.3 million youth in the U.S. are arrested and 60 percent face confinement for offenses neither violent or sexual in nature, such as probation violation, status offense, drug offense or property crime.

Rehabilitative efforts can include behavior management, writing classes, religious services and even training on how to manage finances.

Despite these efforts, the experience of being detained appears to have overwhelmingly negative consequences for young people.

Research shows that the more youth are involved with the juvenile justice system – from arrest to detainment to transfer to an adult court – the higher their chances are of early death, specifically a violent one. Going to juvenile detention also increases risk for poorer life outcomes in terms of educational attainment, relationships and gainful employment. At this point, these relationships are only correlational, but have been demonstrated across many large studies.

Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center shows part of the interior of the building in Staunton, Virginia. Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center via AP

The physical environment inside juvenile detention facilities has an industrial feel, with limited natural light. They are surrounded by chain-linked fences topped with barbed wire.

Once inside, youth are rarely in contact with their support systems, whether that be family, friends or other individuals. While some youth may have been removed from abusive situations at home, the high-threat environment of secure juvenile facilities is far from a rehabilitation-oriented setting.

Maltreatment has been documented in youth detention facilities in most states. According to one survey, about 42 percent of youth in detention are afraid of being physically attacked, 45 percent report unneeded use of force by staff and 30 percent state that staff use isolation as discipline. Isolation, particularly during development, comes with a range of negative physiological and psychological reactions and is associated with the development of mood disorders, like depression and anxiety, and psychosis.

Under such stressful conditions, even young brains would have a difficult time learning or growing. To make matters worse, most youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced early life trauma like abuse and neglect, which can compound the negative effects of these already detrimental experiences.

No ‘magic number’

The clinicians and academics who wrote a policy brief on the California bill cite developmental research, court decisions on youth sentencing and international standards on juvenile justice as the reasons to adopt the age of 12 as the minimum age at which children can be sent to juvenile detention.

However, there is no strong evidence that setting 12 as the lowest age for sending children to detention will provide major benefits. Among these sources cited by the clinicians and academics, the only specific reference to the age of 12 is from international standards set forth by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

In 2007, the committee announced 12 as the absolute minimum age of criminal responsibility, but at the same time strongly advocated for higher ages, like 14 or 16. At the time, research investigating brain development in youth was still emerging. Now, more than 10 years later, we know that experiences during all of adolescence tremendously impact brain development and behavior into adulthood.

While a systemic overhaul would be needed to address the current conditions of juvenile confinement, existing diversion programs are an avenue to affect youth of all ages. One such program is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, founded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation more than 25 years ago.

The initiative monitors the treatment of youth in secure detention facilities and diverts youth or limits time spent confined. The initiative is implemented in over 300 counties nationwide.

Instead of placing young people in detention facilities, these initiatives promote confining them in their homes, in shelters and reporting centers. This approach has been shown to lower the number of times the youth commit crimes again – a large feat given that 70 to 80 percent of youth involved in the juvenile justice system traditionally face rearrest within three years of their release.

Rather than focusing on a specific age for juvenile detention, I believe a greater impact would come from ensuring that confinement is truly rehabilitative and developmentally appropriate for all youth.The Conversation


Republished with permission under licence from The Conversation.

Two Indiana Police Officers to be Charged After Video Shows Them Beating Handcuffed Man

“A little overboard,” is how the police chief had previously described the officers’ actions. The decision to charge them came only after ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network demanded to see the video.

Two Elkhart, Indiana, police officers who punched a handcuffed man in the face more than 10 times will face criminal charges — 11 months after the fact, and only after The South Bend Tribune requested video of the incident as part of an ongoing investigation with ProPublica.

The two officers, Cory Newland and Joshua Titus, will be charged with misdemeanor counts of battery, the police department announced Friday. Both have been placed on administrative leave pending the case’s outcome, department spokesman Sgt. Travis Snider said.

The department also released the video of the beating after 5 p.m. Friday — more than three weeks after The Tribune requested a copy.

Five months ago, the two officers were disciplined for this incident. But they received reprimands rather than suspensions or possible termination.

Speaking to the city’s civilian oversight commission in June, Police Chief Ed Windbigler said the officers used “a little more force than needed” with a suspect in custody, and “just went a little overboard when they took him to the ground.” But Windbigler offered no other details, saying nothing of the two officers punching the man in the face.

The video was recorded in the police station’s detention area after the Jan. 12 arrest of Mario Guerrero Ledesma, who was 28 at the time. The footage shows Ledesma, in handcuffs, sitting in a chair while Newland, Titus and two other officers stand nearby. At one point, Ledesma prepares to spit at Newland, and the officer warns him not to.

As Ledesma spits, Newland and Titus immediately tackle him, and the back of Ledesma’s head strikes the concrete floor. The two officers then jump on him and punch him in the face repeatedly while one calls him a “piece of shit.”

Two other officers walk up casually as the punches are being thrown. “Stop,” one can be heard saying, as the beating ends.

Ledesma pleaded guilty in July to charges of domestic battery and resisting law enforcement, and was sentenced to a year in jail, with 133 days suspended.

The Tribune and ProPublica have been investigating criminal justice in Elkhart County, looking at police accountability, among other issues.

A Tribune reporter requested the Ledesma video after noting a disparity between Windbigler’s public description to the Police Merit Commission — the city panel that exercises civilian oversight — and what the chief wrote in personnel records.

In a June 12 letter of reprimand to Newland, Windbigler wrote: “I completely understand defending yourself during an altercation. However, striking a handcuffed subject in the face is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. We cannot let our emotions direct our reactions or over-reactions to situations such as this.”

The personnel files provided by the police department did not include any response from Newland or Titus to the disciplinary allegations.

Windbigler ended his disciplinary letters to both officers on an upbeat note: “I consider this matter closed!”

At the June 25 meeting of the Police Merit Commission, chairman James Rieckhoff asked Windbigler if anyone had been injured in this incident.

“No,” Windbigler said.

Windbigler, explaining why he opted for only reprimands, told the commission that Titus “had no previous complaints.” He said of Newland: “Here, again, he had no other incidents in his file, so this is his first incident of any type of force.”

“Any questions on this one?” Rieckhoff asked the commission’s other members.

“Just a comment,” commissioner Thomas Barber said. “I like how you police your own.”

“Yes, sir,” Windbigler said.

On Friday, The Tribune requested an interview with the chief, but Snider, the police spokesman, said the department would have no further comment beyond its announcement of the pending charges.

Neither Newland nor Titus immediately returned messages left at their department phone lines. Efforts to reach them at other phone numbers were also unsuccessful.

History of Misconduct

For Newland, the reprimand was not his first disciplinary incident. It was his ninth, according to personnel records gathered by The Tribune and ProPublica.

After being hired in 2008, Newland was suspended six times and reprimanded twice in his first five years.

In 2009, Newland was “very rude and unprofessional,” using profanity toward a member of the public while responding to a call, personnel records say. The police chief at the time, Dale Pflibsen, suspended Newland for one day. “You have been employed for just over one year and this is not the first allegation of you verbally loosing (sic) control towards the public,” Pflibsen wrote to Newland.

“I want to emphasize we will not tolerate this behavior from you towards anyone,” Pflibsen added. “If you plan on continuing your career at the Elkhart Police Department I suggest you seek counseling for anger management.”

The next year, in 2010, Newland was suspended one day for causing a car crash.

In 2011, Newland received a three-day suspension for conduct unbecoming an officer. After arresting a woman for public nudity — she and her boyfriend were having sex in their car, in Elkhart’s McNaughton park — Newland sent her a friend request on Facebook and seven text messages, asking to “hang out.”

“Needless to say you attempting to establish a relationship with this female, a defendant in a criminal case, is unprofessional,” Pflibsen wrote to Newland. “This type of conduct will not be tolerated by you or anyone else.”

One year later, in February 2012, Newland was suspended again, this time for one day. Newland, while off duty, flipped off another driver — who, it turned out, was a jail officer in St. Joseph County, according to a disciplinary letter. Newland also drove recklessly, “brake checking” the other driver, according to disciplinary records.

“Should there be another sustained allegation of this type of misconduct on or off duty I will seriously consider your termination from the Elkhart Police Department,” Pflibsen wrote to Newland.

Exactly one week later, still in February, Newland received a three-day suspension for not turning on his video-audio recording equipment “while on numerous calls and traffic stops,” a disciplinary notice says.

Newland’s last suspension — and his longest, for 35 days — came in the summer of 2013. Newland failed to investigate a woman’s complaint of domestic violence, then lied about it to his superiors, according to disciplinary records.

When asked directly by supervisors if the woman had said her husband hit her, Newland “indicated that she had not made any such statement, and only that there was some pushing involved,” a disciplinary letter said. But “within minutes of the end of the interview,” Newland “returned and informed his supervisors that the victim had, in fact, reported being hit by her husband.”

An audio recording captured the woman telling Newland she had been hit, and that her husband did so in front of her children, a disciplinary letter says.

Newland’s failure to be truthful did more than violate department policy, Pflibsen wrote to the civilian oversight board. If a police officer testifies as a witness, authorities must disclose if the officer “has been dishonest in his or her official capacity,” Pflibsen wrote, adding: “This incident has been referred to the Prosecutor’s Office and may have a significant detrimental impact on their ability to prosecute this case.”


​Republished with permission under license from ProPublica a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. 

 

 

A Surgeon So Bad It Was Criminal

Christopher Duntsch’s surgical outcomes were so outlandishly poor that Texas prosecuted him for harming patients. Why did it take so long for the systems that are supposed to police problem doctors to stop him from operating?

The pain from the pinched nerve in the back of Jeff Glidewell’s neck had become unbearable.

Every time he’d turn his head a certain way, or drive over bumps in the road, he felt as if jolts of electricity were running through his body. Glidewell, now 54, had been living on disability because of an accident a decade earlier. As the pain grew worse, it became clear his only choice was neurosurgery. He searched Google to find a doctor near his home in suburban Dallas who would accept his Medicare Advantage insurance.

That’s how he came across Dr. Christopher Duntsch in the spring of 2013.

Duntsch seemed impressive, at least on the surface. His CV boasted that he’d earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. from a top spinal surgery program. Glidewell found four- and five-star reviews of Duntsch on Healthgrades and more praise seemingly from patients on Duntsch’s Facebook page. On a link for something called “Best Docs Network,” Glidewell found a slickly produced video showing Duntsch in his white coat, talking to a happy patient and wearing a surgical mask in an operating room.

There was no way Glidewell could have known from Duntsch’s carefully curated internet presence or from any other information then publicly available that to be Duntsch’s patient was to be in mortal danger.

Jeff Glidewell had surgery with Dr. Christopher Duntsch in 2013. He was Duntsch’s last patient, and his call to a judge in early 2015 helped bring the case back to the DA’s attention. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

In the roughly two years that Duntsch — a blue-eyed, smooth-talking former college football player — had practiced medicine in Dallas, he had operated on 37 patients. Almost all, 33 to be exact, had been injured during or after these procedures, suffering almost unheard-of complications. Some had permanent nerve damage. Several woke up from surgery unable to move from the neck down or feel one side of their bodies. Two died in the hospital, including a 55-year-old schoolteacher undergoing what was supposed to be a straightforward day surgery.

Multiple layers of safeguards are supposed to protect patients from doctors who are incompetent or dangerous, or to provide them with redress if they are harmed. Duntsch illustrates how easily these defenses can fail, even in egregious cases.

Neurosurgeons are worth millions in revenue for hospitals, so Duntsch was able to get operating privileges at a string of Dallas-area institutions. Once his ineptitude became clear, most chose to spare themselves the hassle and legal exposure of firing him outright and instead let him resign, reputation intact.

At least two facilities that quietly dumped Duntsch failed to report him to a database run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that’s supposed to act as a clearinghouse for information on problem practitioners, warning potential employers about their histories.

“It seems to be the custom and practice,” said Kay Van Wey, a Dallas plaintiff’s attorney who came to represent 14 of Duntsch’s patients. “Kick the can down the road and protect yourself first, and protect the doctor second and make it be somebody else’s problem.”

It took more than six months and multiple catastrophic surgeries before anyone reported Duntsch to the state medical board, which can suspend or revoke a doctor’s license. Then it took almost another year for the board to investigate, with Duntsch operating all the while.

When Duntsch’s patients tried to sue him for malpractice, many found it almost impossible to find attorneys. Since Texas enacted tort reform in 2003, reducing the amount of damages plaintiffs could win, the number of malpractice payouts per year has dropped by more than half.

Duntsch’s attorney did not allow him to be interviewed for this story. Representatives from one hospital where he worked also would not respond to questions. Two more facilities said they could not comment on Duntsch because their management has changed since he was there, and a fourth has closed.

In the end, it fell to the criminal justice system, not the medical system, to wring out a measure of accountability for Duntsch’s malpractice.

In July 2015, Duntsch was arrested and Dallas prosecutors charged him with one count of injury to an elderly person and five counts of assault, all stemming from his work on patients.

The case was covered intensely by local and state media outlets. D Magazine, Dallas’ monthly glossy, published a cover story in 2016 with the headline “Dr. Death”; the nickname stuck.

Last year, Duntsch was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, becoming the first doctor in the nation to meet such a fate for his practice of medicine.

“The medical community system has a problem,” Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Martin said in a press conference after the verdict. “But we were able to solve it in the criminal courthouse.”

Glidewell was the last patient Duntsch operated on before being stripped of his license to practice medicine.

According to doctors who reviewed the case, Duntsch mistook part of his neck muscle for a tumor and abandoned the operation midway through — after cutting into Glidewell’s vocal cords, puncturing an artery, slicing a hole in his esophagus, stuffing a sponge into the wound and then sewing Glidewell up, sponge and all.

Glidewell spent four days in intensive care and endured months of rehabilitation for the wound to his esophagus. To this day, he can only eat food in small bites and has nerve damage. “He still has numbness in his hand and in his arm,” said his wife, Robin. “He basically can’t really feel things when he’s holding them in his fingers.”

Neither Glidewell, nor the prosecutors, nor even Duntsch’s own attorneys said they thought his outlandish case had been a wake-up call for the system that polices doctors, however.

“Nothing has changed from when I picked Duntsch to do my surgery,” Glidewell said. “The public is still limited to the research they can do on a doctor.”

For Duntsch, the path into medicine was unconventional and, perhaps, a reflection of his tendency to fixate on unlikely goals.

The first of these had been college football. Duntsch’s father had been a gridiron standout in Montana and Duntsch, though not a particularly talented athlete, was determined to follow in those footsteps. He trained hour after hour on his own and played linebacker on his high school team in Memphis, Tennessee. Classmates remember him as a turbine of sheer determination.

Before Duntsch became a doctor, he doggedly pursued a football career. One teammate remembers Duntsch struggling with basic drills and attributed Duntsch’s success to “sweat equity.” (Via Facebook)

“He had his goal, his sight on a goal and whatever it took to get there,” said one classmate, who did not want to be named. “He wanted to go to college and play, and I can recall he was like 180 pounds and said, ‘I need to get to 220’ in order to be a linebacker at Colorado or Colorado State.”

He did get a football scholarship, but it was to Millsaps College in Mississippi. He yearned to transfer and play linebacker for a Division I team. He set his sights on the Colorado State Rams his sophomore year and made it as one of the few walk-on players. Chris Dozois, a fellow linebacker with the Rams, recalled Duntsch struggling, even with basic drills, but begging to run them over and over.

“He’d be, ‘Coach, I promise I can get this, let me do it again.’ He’d go through; he’d screw it up again,” Dozois said. “I gathered very quickly that everything that he had accomplished in sports had come with the sweat equity. When people said, ‘You weren’t going to be good enough,’ he outworked that and he made it happen.”

Homesick, Duntsch left Colorado after a year and transferred again to what was then Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis. He had hoped to play football, but he tearfully told Dozois his multiple transfers had taken away his eligibility.

It was then, Dozois recalled, that Duntsch set his sights on his next goal: to be a doctor. And not just any doctor — a neurosurgeon, operating on injured backs and necks.

After getting his undergraduate degree in 1995, Duntsch enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Memphis College of Medicine, in an ambitious program to earn both an M.D. and a Ph.D.

As part of the program, he worked in a research lab, studying the origins of brain cancer and the various uses of stem cells. For a time, after he earned his dual degrees in 2001 and 2002, it seemed he might make a career in biotechnology rather than treating patients.

As he did his surgical residency, Duntsch teamed up with two Russian scientists, recruited by the University of Tennessee, to explore the commercial potential of stem cells to revitalize ailing backs. They patented technology to obtain and grow disk stem cells, and in 2008, they launched a company, DiscGenics, to develop and sell such products. Two of Duntsch’s supervisors from the university were among the first investors.

Duntsch on his first day as a neurosurgeon. (Via Facebook)

While Duntsch appeared to be thriving during these years, more unsavory aspects of his life simmered below the surface.

In sworn testimony from 2014, an ex-girlfriend of one of his closest friends described a drug-fueled, all-night birthday celebration for Duntsch about midway through his residency. Revelers drank and used cocaine and pills, she said. At dawn, Duntsch slipped on his white coat and headed for rounds at the hospital.

“Most people, when they go binge all night long, they don’t function the next day to go to work,” she said in her deposition. “After you’ve spent a night using cocaine, most people become paranoid and want to stay in the house. He was totally fine going to work.”

One of the early investors in DiscGenics, Rand Page, said he was initially impressed with how Duntsch presented himself and the company, but as time passed, Page became wary of his new business partner.

“We would meet in the mornings, and he would be mixing a vodka orange juice to start off the day,” Page said. Once, he stopped by Duntsch’s house to pick up some paperwork. He opened a desk drawer to find a mirror with cocaine and a rolled-up dollar bill sitting on top of it.

Ultimately, Duntsch was forced out of DiscGenics and his partners and investors sued him over money and stock. (Representatives of DiscGenics declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The University of Tennessee said it could not comment on Duntsch, citing the confidentiality and privacy of medical students’ records, but Dr. Frederick Boop, chief of neurosurgery at the hospital where Duntsch did his residency, appears to have known about Duntsch’s substance abuse.

In a 2012 phone call recorded by a Texas doctor who contacted Boop because he was alarmed by Duntsch’s surgical errors, Boop acknowledged that an anonymous woman had filed a complaint against Duntsch, saying he was using drugs before seeing patients.

In the phone conversation, Boop said university officials had asked Duntsch to take a drug test, but he had avoided it, disappearing for several days. When he returned, he was sent to a program for impaired physicians and closely supervised for the remainder of his surgical training, Boop told the Texas doctor. (An attorney for the University of Tennessee said Boop would not respond to questions for this story.)

It’s not clear how much training Duntsch actually received, however.

After his arrest, the Dallas district attorney’s office subpoenaed every hospital on Duntsch’s CV for records of his surgeries, including those during his residency and subsequent one-year fellowship.

According to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, a neurosurgery resident does about 1,000 operations during training. But according to records gathered by the DA, by the time Duntsch finished his residency and fellowship, he had operated fewer than 100 times.

Despite what Duntsch had told friends when he headed off to medical school, Page said Duntsch had staked his fortune on being a businessman, not a doctor.

“I don’t think his plan was ever to become a surgeon,” he said. When Duntsch was kicked out of DiscGenics, “I think the decision was made for him that he was going to have to enter into the medical community to support himself.”

Duntsch’s first job as a practicing physician was at the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute in the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, which hired him in the summer of 2011, when he also received privileges to operate at Baylor Regional Medical Center.

The hospital welcomed Duntsch with a $600,000 advance. While no one from the practice agreed to be interviewed, they sent an email describing the recommendations they had gotten from Duntsch’s supervisors at the University of Tennessee medical school in Memphis.

“We were told Duntsch was one of the best and smartest neurosurgeons they ever trained, as they went on at length about his strengths,” they said in the email. “When asked about Dr. Duntsch’s weaknesses or areas for improvement, the supervising physician communicated that the only weakness Duntsch had was that he took on too many tasks for one person.”

In 2010, Boop faxed a recommendation for Duntsch to Baylor-Plano, checking off “good” or “excellent” in boxes asking about his skills and noting, “Chris is extremely bright and possibly the hardest working person I have ever met.” Another supervisor, Dr. Jon Robertson, who was an old family friend of the Duntsches and an investor in DiscGenics, noted on his recommendation that Duntsch had an “excellent work ethic.” (A University of Tennessee attorney said Robertson could not respond to questions.)

A vascular surgeon who operated at Baylor-Plano, Dr. Randall Kirby, said he met Duntsch soon after he started and found him to be an arrogant know-it-all.

Dr. Randall Kirby, left, and Dr. Robert Henderson both worked to keep Duntsch from being able to operate on patients. (Nate Kitch, special to ProPublica)

“I would see him maybe once a week at the scrub sinks or in the doctor’s lounge,” Kirby said. “He is among giants up there, and he was trying to tell me over and over again how most of the spine surgery here in Dallas was being done inappropriately and that he was going to clean this town up.”

Duntsch lasted only a few months at the spine institute, not because his patients had complications, but because of a falling out with the other doctors over whether he was fulfilling his obligations.

One weekend in September 2011, Kirby said, Duntsch was supposed to be taking care of a patient. He went to Las Vegas instead. One of the partners, Dr. Michael Rimlawi, “was notified by the administration that the patient wasn’t getting rounded on, and Dr. Rimlawi then dismissed Dr. Duntsch after that,” Kirby said. (Rimlawi declined to comment for this story.)

Nonetheless, Duntsch still had privileges at Baylor-Plano, and on Dec. 30, 2011, he operated on a man named Lee Passmore.

At the time, Passmore was an investigator in the Collin County Medical Examiner’s office, just north of Dallas. He had undergone successful back surgery once before, but the pain had returned. Passmore’s pain specialist told him he didn’t have a back surgeon to whom he routinely referred patients, but that he’d gone to lunch recently with one who “seemed like a guy that knew what he was talking about,” Passmore recalled in court testimony.

Vascular surgeon Mark Hoyle assisted with the operation. In later testimony, he said he watched in alarm as Duntsch began to cut out a ligament around the spinal cord not typically disturbed in such procedures. Passmore started bleeding profusely, so much so that the operating field was submerged in a lake of red. Duntsch not only misplaced hardware in Passmore’s spine, but he stripped the screw so it could not be moved, Hoyle testified. At one point, Hoyle said, he either grabbed Duntsch’s scalpel or blocked the incision — he could not remember which — to keep Duntsch from continuing the procedure. Then Hoyle said he left the operating room and vowed never to work with Duntsch again. (In response to a request for comment, Hoyle sent a note saying he was through talking about Duntsch.)

Passmore did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Passmore has testified that he lives with chronic pain and has trouble walking as a result of Duntsch’s errors.

The next patient Duntsch operated on was Barry Morguloff.

Morguloff ran a pool service company. He had worn out his back working in his father’s import business, helping to unload trucks. “It took a toll on my back even with back supports and exercise and a strong core,” Morguloff said. His pain returned after an earlier back surgery, but the surgeon recommended exercise and weight loss, not another procedure.

A pain specialist gave Morguloff Duntsch’s card.

“Everything that I read when we first got his card — outstanding reviews, people loved him. I read everything I could about this guy,” Morguloff said. He set up an appointment and found himself impressed by Duntsch’s easy confidence.

“Phenomenal, great guy, loved him,” Morguloff recalled. Most importantly, he added, “I was in pain and somebody, a neurosurgeon, said, ‘I can fix you.’”

His surgery, an anterior lumbar spinal fusion, took place on Jan. 11, 2012. At the request of a head-and-neck surgeon also on the case, the vascular surgeon assisting Duntsch was Kirby. Kirby said it should have been a routine case.

“In the spectrum of what a neurosurgeon does for a living, doing an anterior lumbar fusion procedure’s probably the easiest thing that they do on a daily basis,” he said.

But Duntsch quickly got into trouble. Instead of using a scalpel, he tried to pull Morguloff’s problem disk out with a grabbing instrument that could damage the spine. Kirby said he argued with Duntsch, even offering to take over, but Duntsch insisted he knew what he was doing. Kirby left the room.

Barry Morguloff had what was supposed to be routine surgery with Duntsch. The lasting damage has affected his ability to walk, and as time passes he gradually loses function on the left side of his body. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

Morguloff awoke in excruciating pain.

His previous surgeon testified at Duntsch’s trial that the procedure had left bone fragments in Morguloff’s spinal canal. The surgeon said he repaired what damage he could, but Morguloff still walks with a cane. As scar tissue builds up, his pain will worsen and his range of motion will decrease. One day, he will likely be in a wheelchair.

“As time goes on, the scar tissue and everything builds up, and I lose more and more function of that left side,” he said. “I do my best to stay active. But some days I just can’t get moving. The pain is continuous.”

Soon after the Morguloff surgery, Duntsch took on a patient who was also an old friend.

Jerry Summers had played football with Duntsch in high school and helped with logistics at the research lab during his residency. When Duntsch took the job in Dallas, he asked Summers to move with him and help set up his practice. They lived in a downtown luxury high-rise while Duntsch shopped for a house.

In a deposition he gave later to the district attorney, Summers said he asked Duntsch to operate on him because he had chronic pain from a high school football injury that had gotten worse after a car accident. After the February 2012 surgery, however, Summers couldn’t move from the neck down.

According to doctors who later reviewed the case, Duntsch had damaged Summers’ vertebral artery, causing it to bleed almost uncontrollably. To stop the bleeding, Duntsch packed the space with so much anticoagulant that it squeezed Summers’ spine.

For days after the operation, Summers lay in the ICU, descending into a deep depression. “Jerry was calm with Chris,” said Jennifer Miller, then Summers’ girlfriend, “but all Jerry would say to me is: ‘I want to die. Kill me. Kill me. I want to die.’”

One morning, Summers began screaming and told several nurses that he and Duntsch had stayed up the night before the surgery doing eight-balls of cocaine. In truth, the night before the surgery Summers and Miller had dinner at a local restaurant and watched the University of Memphis basketball team play Southern Mississippi on the bar TV.

In his 2017 deposition, Summers acknowledged he made up the pre-surgery cocaine binge because he felt Duntsch had abandoned him, as both his surgeon and his friend.

“I was just really mad and hollering and wanting him to be there,” Summers said. “And so I made a statement that was not something that was necessarily true. … The statement was only made so that he might hear it and go, ‘Let me get my ass down there.’”

Baylor officials took Summers’ accusation seriously and ordered Duntsch to take a drug test. As at the University of Tennessee, he stalled at first, telling administrators he got lost on the way to the lab. He passed a separate psychological evaluation and, after three weeks, was allowed to operate again, but he was told to stick to relatively minor procedures.

His first patient after his return was elementary school teacher Kellie Martin, who had a compressed nerve from falling off a ladder as she fetched Christmas decorations from her attic. During the surgery, records show, Martin’s blood pressure inexplicably plummeted.

As she regained consciousness after the surgery, the nurses tending to Martin testified that she began to slap and claw at her legs, which had turned a splotchy, mottled color. She became so agitated the staff had to sedate her. She never reawakened. An autopsy would later find that Duntsch had cut a major vessel in her spinal cord, and within hours, Martin bled to death.

Baylor-Plano again ordered Duntsch to take a drug test. The first screening came back diluted with tap water, but a second, taken a few days later, came up clean. Hospital administrators also organized a comprehensive review of Duntsch’s cases, after which they determined that his days at the facility were over.

But — importantly — they did not fire him outright. Instead, he resigned, leaving on April 20, 2012, with a lawyer-negotiated letter saying, “All areas of concern with regard to Christopher D. Duntsch have been closed. As of this date, there have been no summary or administrative restrictions or suspension of Duntsch’s medical staff membership or clinical privileges during the time he has practiced at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano.”

Since Duntsch’s departure was technically voluntary and his leave had been for less than 31 days, Baylor-Plano was under no obligation to report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank.

The databank, which was established in 1990, tracks malpractice payouts and adverse actions taken against doctors, such as being fired, barred from Medicare, handed a long suspension, or having a license suspended or revoked.

The information isn’t available to the public or other doctors, but hospital administrators have access to the databank and are supposed to use it to make sure problem doctors can’t shed their pasts by moving from state to state or hospital to hospital. Robert Oshel, a patient safety advocate and former associate director of the databank, says that hospitals are required to check all applicants for clinical privileges and once every two years for everyone who has clinical privileges.

Many hospitals, however, hesitate to submit reports to the databank, worrying that doing so may hurt doctors’ job prospects or even prompt lawsuits.

“What happens sometimes is that doctors are allowed to resign in lieu of discipline so that the hospital can protect its perceived legal liability from the doctor,” said Van Wey, the Dallas trial lawyer. “If Dr. Duntsch was unable to get privileges at other hospitals, theoretically Dr. Duntsch could have sued Baylor and said: ‘Look, I could be making $2 million a year here. … You owe me $2 million for the rest of my life.’”

According to a report by Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group, about half the hospitals in the country had never reported a doctor to the databank by 2009. A more recent analysis didn’t find much change, said Dr. Sid Wolfe, a founder of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Despite his string of problems at Baylor-Plano, Duntsch also wasn’t reported to the Texas Medical Board, the state’s main purveyor of doctor discipline. Such boards often move slowly, but if hospital officials submit material they’ve gathered to justify letting a doctor go, boards can act to protect patients from imminent harm.

“Had Baylor’s action been reported appropriately, I would anticipate the board would have met within days to have an immediate suspension,” said Dr. Allan Shulkin, a Dallas pulmonologist who was on the medical board in 2012.

The board would still have conducted an investigation, but Duntsch would not have been allowed to operate while it was going on, Shulkin said. He was visibly angered by Baylor-Plano’s failure to report. “What’s the worst that can happen, a lawsuit?” he said. “Come on. These are people dying, and we’re stopping because you’re afraid of a lawsuit?”

Two years after Duntsch left Baylor-Plano, the hospital’s decision not to report its review of his work or its results prompted an investigation by state health authorities. The hospital was hit with a violation and fined $100,000 in December 2014, but a year later, the citation and penalty were withdrawn. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission would not explain why, saying the records were confidential.

Hospital officials declined to be interviewed for this story, submitting a written statement instead.

“Our primary concern, as always, is with patients,” it said. “Out of respect for the patients and families involved, and the privileged nature of a number of details, we must continue to limit our comments. There is nothing more important to us than serving our community through high-quality, trusted healthcare.”

Duntsch’s next stop was Dallas Medical Center, which sits outside Dallas’ northern edge in the city of Farmers Branch. Baylor-Plano officials might have thought any future employer would contact them before hiring him and they could share information confidentially, but Dallas Medical Center granted Duntsch temporary privileges while its reference checks were still going on.

On July 24, 2012, Duntsch operated on Floella Brown, 64, a banker about to retire after a long career. She had come to Duntsch for cervical spine surgery to ease her worsening neck and shoulder pain.

About a half hour into Brown’s surgery, Duntsch started to complain that he was having trouble seeing her spine.

“He was saying: ‘There’s so much blood I can’t see. I can’t see this,’” said Kyle Kissinger, an operating room nurse. He kept telling the scrub tech “’suck more, suck more. Get that blood out of there. I can’t see.’ That’s really concerning to me because, not only that he can’t do it correctly when he can’t see that but, why is it still bleeding?”

Brown bled so much that blood was saturating the blue draping around her body and dripping onto the floor. The nursing staff put down towels to soak it up.

After the operation, Brown woke up and seemed fine, but early the next morning she lost consciousness. Pressure was building inside her brain for reasons that were unclear at the time.

That same morning — with Brown still in the ICU — Duntsch took another patient into surgery.

The patient’s name was Mary Efurd. She was an active 71-year-old who’d sought Duntsch’s help because back pain was keeping her off her treadmill.

Duntsch arrived at the hospital about 45 minutes after Efurd’s surgery had been set to start, Kissinger said. He spotted a hole in Duntsch’s scrubs. “It’s on the butt cheek of his scrubs. He didn’t wear underwear. That’s why it really shined down to me,” Kissinger said. The nurse realized he’d seen that hole for three straight days — Duntsch apparently hadn’t changed his scrubs all week. Kissinger also noticed that Duntsch had pinpoint pupils and hardly seemed to blink.

When Duntsch arrived, the staff told him that Brown, his patient from the day before, was in critical condition.

Soon after beginning Efurd’s surgery, Duntsch turned to Kissinger and told him to let the front desk know he would be performing a procedure on Brown called a craniotomy, cutting a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure in her brain. Problem was, Dallas Medical Center did not perform those, or even have the proper equipment to do them.

As he operated on Efurd, Duntsch quarreled first with Kissinger and later with his supervisors, insisting on a craniotomy for Brown, according to court testimony. All the while, the operating room staff questioned whether Duntsch was putting hardware into Efurd in the right places and noticed he kept drilling and removing screws.

In the end, Duntsch did not perform a craniotomy on Brown. She was moved to another hospital but never regained consciousness. In court, her family said they withdrew life support a few days later. A neurosurgeon hired to review her case would later determine that Duntsch had both pierced and blocked her vertebral artery with a misplaced screw. The review also found that Duntsch misdiagnosed the source of her pain and was operating in the wrong place.

The day after her surgery, Efurd awoke in agony. She couldn’t turn over or wiggle her toes. Hospital administrators called Dr. Robert Henderson, a Dallas spine surgeon, to try to repair the damage.

Shortly after he arrived at the hospital, Henderson pulled up Efurd’s post-operative X-rays. When he saw them, he said, “I’m really thinking that some kind of travesty occurred.” That impression only grew when Henderson reopened Efurd’s freshly made incisions the next day. “It was as if he knew everything to do,” Henderson said of Duntsch, “and then he’d done virtually everything wrong.”

There were three holes poked into Efurd’s spinal column where Duntsch had tried and failed to insert screws. One screw was jabbed directly into her spinal canal. That same screw had also skewered the nerves that control one leg and the bladder. Henderson cleaned out bone fragments. Then he discovered that one of Efurd’s nerve roots — the bundle of nerves coming out of the spine — was completely gone. For some inexplicable reason, Duntsch had amputated it.

The operation was so botched, Henderson recalled thinking Duntsch had to be an impostor passing himself off as a surgeon. Even after Henderson’s repairs, Efurd never regained her mobility and now uses a wheelchair. (In an email, Efurd said that discussing what happened to her again would take a toll on her health.)

By the end of the week, hospitals administrators told Duntsch he would no longer operate at Dallas Medical Center. But, as had happened at Baylor-Plano, Duntsch was allowed to resign and the hospital didn’t notify the National Practitioner Data Bank. Dallas Medical Center officials said the hospital had different managers when Duntsch worked there and that current administrators could not comment on his work or the circumstances under which he left.

Duntsch would continue to operate. In fact, his career in Dallas was only about half over.

After Duntsch’s disastrous run at Dallas Medical Center, he was finally reported to the state medical board. The first report came from Shulkin, the Dallas physician who served on the board, who had been told of the surgeries on Efurd and Brown. Other doctors started complaining, too.

“Once I heard about those cases, I called the medical board,” said Kirby, the vascular surgeon who had been present for Morguloff’s surgery. “I said: ‘Listen, we’ve had egregious results at Baylor-Plano. He was not reported to the databank. We’ve had egregious results at Dallas Medical Center. He’s got to be stopped.’”

After being called in to help Efurd, Henderson, too, made it his personal mission to stop Duntsch from operating. He called Boop at the University of Tennessee to ask about Duntsch’s training and spoke to officials at Baylor-Plano hospital. He also called the state medical board.

When a couple of months passed and they didn’t hear about more bad outcomes, Henderson and Kirby said they assumed perhaps Duntsch’s mistakes had finally caught up with him.

Then, in December 2012, Kirby was asked to help Jacqueline Troy, a patient suffering from a severe infection. (The Troy family would not comment for this story.) Troy was being transferred to a Dallas hospital from a surgery center in the suburb of Frisco. She’d had neck surgery, but the surgeon had cut her vocal cords and one of her arteries. When Kirby learned the details, he asked the doctor who referred the case to him about the surgeon: “Is it a guy named Christopher Duntsch?”

It was.

Duntsch had managed to get a job at Legacy Surgery Center, an outpatient clinic. (The ownership of the clinic has changed and the new owners declined to comment for this story.)

Soon after Troy’s surgery, Duntsch was finally reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank, though not by any of his previous employers. A report dated Jan. 15, 2013, obtained by an attorney representing one of Duntsch’s patients, shows that Methodist Hospital in the Dallas suburb of McKinney had reported Duntsch after denying him privileges six months earlier. Their rejection was based on Duntsch’s “substandard or inadequate care” at Baylor-Plano. (Methodist McKinney declined to comment for this story.)

But even after the report to the databank, Kirby was stunned to discover another hospital had given privileges to Duntsch. In May 2013, he was invited to a “Meet Our New Specialist” dinner thrown by University General hospital at a Dallas restaurant. The event was to celebrate the arrival of a new neurosurgeon: Christopher Duntsch.

“I called down there and raised holy hell,” Kirby said.

Kirby in his office in Dallas. A vascular surgeon, Kirby was present for one surgery with Duntsch and worked afterward to stop him from operating again. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

University General, formerly known as South Hampton Community Hospital, had a troubled history: two bankruptcies and a former CEO sentenced to prison for health care fraud. Purchased for $30 million in 2012 by a Houston-based company, University General was one of only three hospitals serving Dallas’ southern half, an area that spans 200 square miles and includes more than 560,000 people. The surrounding community was hoping for a turnaround.

The hospital is now closed, and its administrators from that time did not respond to questions about why they hired Duntsch.

It likely came down to simple economics. According to the health care analysis firm Merritt Hawkins, the average neurosurgeon is worth $2.4 million a year in revenue to a hospital.

“That’s a dream for a hospital administrator,” Kirby said.

It’s also a virtual employment guarantee for a doctor with Duntsch’s credentials, Dallas neurosurgeon Dr. Martin Lazar said.

“I don’t think it’s because of our charm,” Lazar added dryly. “We are like a cash cow.”

It was at University General that Glidewell had his neck surgery, knowing none of Duntsch’s by then two-year history of botching operations.

Glidewell’s back problems had begun almost a decade earlier, in 2004, when he broke his back in two places in a motorcycle accident. After a year of rehab, he tried to go back to his job working on air conditioning systems but lasted only months before the pain stopped him. He left his first meeting with Duntsch elated and filled with hope.

“I was actually so happy with the way it went that I called my wife and my mother and said, ‘I think I found somebody on my insurance that’s gonna fix my neck,’” he said.

The day of the surgery began ominously. That morning, “We pulled out of the driveway, and soon as we started going forward down the street, a black cat ran across the front of the car,” Glidewell said. “I said, ‘Oh, Lord, this is not good.’ We turned the corner, and when we got on the first county road, and another one. Turning into the hospital, another one.”

Glidewell spent four days in intensive care and endured months of rehabilitation after his surgery with Duntsch. The photo on his iPad was taken the day he returned home, after spending months in the hospital. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

Three black cats on the way to the hospital. “I said, ‘We need to just turn around and go home.’”

Once at the hospital, Glidewell and his wife waited. And waited. Three hours late, they said, Duntsch finally arrived in a cab. “He had on jeans that were frayed at the bottom,” Glidewell said. “He didn’t look like he was ready for a surgery.”

Reluctantly, Glidewell went ahead. But hours later, Duntsch came out and told Glidewell’s wife that he had found a tumor in Glidewell’s neck and aborted the procedure.

“I was devastated, crying,” Robin Glidewell recalled. She went to see her husband in the recovery room. “Immediately, Jeff was: ‘Where is the doctor? I can’t move my arm or my leg.’ He was having trouble even talking and said, ‘Something’s wrong, something’s wrong.’”

There was no tumor, but Duntsch had made a series of errors after mistaking a portion of Glidewell’s neck muscle for a growth, according to a review of the case.

The owner of University General heard about what happened to Glidewell and called Kirby to try to mitigate the damage.

“I, with reluctance, went down there and met the Glidewell family and took care of him,” Kirby said. Glidewell was spiking fevers and was transferred to another hospital for care. He would remain there for months.

“This was not an operation that was performed,” Kirby said. “This was attempted murder.”

By the time Duntsch operated on Glidewell, the state medical board had been investigating him for about 10 months.

Frustrated by the board’s inaction, Henderson had called the lead investigator six months earlier to beg for faster intervention. In a recording Henderson made of the call, he says, “This is a bad, bad guy, and he needs to be put on the fast track if there’s such a thing.” She tells him she wishes they could suspend his license while they investigate, but the board’s attorneys wouldn’t go for that.

Kirby sent the board a five-page letter on June 23, 2013, spurred by what had happened to Glidewell. “Let me be blunt,” it said. “Christopher Duntsch, Texas Medical Board license number N8183, is an impaired physician, a sociopath, and must be stopped from practicing medicine.” Robin Glidewell also sent a letter, describing what happened to her husband.

By then, Brett Shipp, a reporter from Dallas’ ABC affiliate, had gotten tips about the board’s slow-moving investigation of Duntsch from a friend of one of Duntsch’s patients and a plaintiff’s attorney. “Very shortly after I contacted them,” Shipp said, “they suspended his license.”

On June 26, Duntsch was ordered to stop operating. The head of the medical board at the time, San Angelo family physician Dr. Irvin Zeitler, said the investigation took a while because “it’s not uncommon for there to be complications in neurosurgery.”

It also struck the board as highly improbable that a surgeon fresh out of training could be so lacking in surgical skill.

“So none of us rushed to judgment,” Zeitler said. “That’s not fair, and in the long run, it can come back to be incorrect. To suspend a physician’s license, there has to be a pattern of patient injury. So that was, ultimately that’s what happened. But it took until June of 2013 to get that established.”

Henderson was called in to repair the damage to one patient following her surgery with Duntsch. After he saw the damage to her spine, he made it his personal mission to keep him from operating on anyone else. (Dylan Hollingsworth for ProPublica)

Even after the board acted, those most involved in trying to keep Duntsch from operating were afraid it would not be the end of his career.

“I was terrified of that term, ‘suspended,’” Henderson said. “I mean, that indicates that he might get it back at some point in time, and I was already aware of the fact of how glib Dr. Duntsch was, and how disarming he was, and how friendly and intelligent he appeared whenever he introduced himself to people that he wanted to impress. I was concerned that he would do the same thing in getting his license back whether it was six months later, a year later, two years later.”

Kirby, Henderson and another doctor decided to contact the district attorney, convinced that Duntsch’s malpractice was so egregious it was criminal. They met with an assistant DA but got little traction.

On Dec. 6, 2013, the medical board permanently revoked Duntsch’s license.

He left Texas, moving in with his parents in Colorado and filing for bankruptcy, claiming debts of around $1 million. His life seemed to go into a free fall. In January 2014, he was pulled over by police in southern Denver around 3:30 a.m. Officers said he was driving on the left side of the road with two flat tires. When he opened the window, they smelled the sour tang of alcohol and spotted an empty bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade on the floor of the car. A full one was sitting in the console. After a breath test, Duntsch was arrested for DUI and sent to a detox facility.

Even though he was living in Colorado, he continued to return to Dallas to see his two sons. His older son had been born back when he at Baylor-Plano. His girlfriend, Wendy Young, had a second son in September of 2014.

The following spring, in March, police were called to a bank in Northeast Dallas after passers-by noticed a man with blood on his hands and face beating on the doors. It was Duntsch, babbling about his family being in danger. He was wearing the shirt of his black scrubs. It was covered in blood. Officers took him to a nearby psychiatric hospital.

In April, Duntsch went to a Dallas Walmart because his father had wired him money. According to a police report, he filled a shopping cart with $887 worth of merchandise, including watches, sunglasses, silk neckties, computer equipment, a walkie-talkie and bottle of Drakkar Noir cologne. He put them in bags he swiped from a register. He then then picked out a pair of trousers and put them on in a dressing room. He put his own pants into the cart and rolled the cart out the front door without paying for the pants he was wearing. Moments later, he was arrested for shoplifting.

By then, reporters were following every twist in the Duntsch saga. In May 2015, the Texas Observer published an article with the headline, “‘Sociopath’ Surgeon Duntsch Arrested for Shoplifting Pants.” In the comment section underneath the article, Duntsch responded with a series of diatribes against everyone he thought had conspired against him. His cybermanifesto ran to more than 80 pages when printed out.

In one comment directed at Kirby, he wrote, “You use the word without explanation impaired physician and sociopath. Since I am going to sue you or [sic] libel and slander of a criminal nature, this might be a good point to defend this comment.” He called Morguloff’s surgery “a perfect success.”

Kirby took the comments to the district attorney’s office. By then, a judge who knew Glidewell had also brought the case to the DA’s attention.

Prosecutors began discussing the case anew and one assistant district attorney, Michelle Shughart, found it particularly interesting. In 13 years with the Dallas DA’s office, she’d prosecuted drug dealers, robbers, but never a doctor. “I went and started doing my own research,” she said. “I just ended up taking over the case.”

One of the biggest challenges was that there hadn’t been a case like it before.

“We did a lot of research to see if we found find anyone else who had done any cases like this, any other doctors who had been prosecuted for what they had actually done during the surgery,” Shughart said. “We couldn’t find anyone.”

As she and other prosecutors contacted every person Duntsch had ever operated on or their survivors, they struggled to figure what crimes he could be charged with. They settled on five counts of aggravated assault arising from his treatment of four patients, including Brown and Glidewell, and one count of injury to an elderly person, because Efurd was over 65.

In Texas, this charge carried a potential life sentence, but prosecutors had to race to file the case.

“We had about four months left before we were going to run out on the statute of limitations” on Efurd’s case, Shughart said. “I spent those four months just digging as hard as I possibly could, trying to gather as much information as I could. And by the time we got down to that July, I had overwhelming evidence to indict him.”

Duntsch was taken into custody on July 21, 2015.

For some of his patients, the criminal case offered a last chance at justice they couldn’t get through the civil courts.

Since Texas capped damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, limiting the amount plaintiffs can be awarded for pain and suffering in most cases to $250,000, the number of suits filed and amounts paid out have plummeted.

The suits that go forward often ride on economic damages, such as lost earning power, which the law does not limit in non-death cases. But many of Duntsch’s patients were disabled when they came to him, or older, or had lower incomes. Some had pain that was hard to economically quantify. Despite having clear-cut claims and serious, irreversible injuries, three patients I talked to said me they had trouble finding attorneys to take their cases.

“It is not worth an attorney’s time and energy to take on a malpractice case in the state of Texas,” Morguloff said.

Ultimately, at least 19 of Duntsch’s patients or their survivors obtained settlements, but 14 of them were represented by Van Wey, who said she’s taken them on more out of a sense of outrage than out of any financial upside.

Morguloff was told no so often, he was surprised when attorney Mike Lyons finally took his case. He received a confidential settlement but said, “It wasn’t much.” He took more solace from the criminal case.

“To get this guy off the streets so nobody else got hurt again was important,” he said. “The public needed to know that there was a monster out there.”

Duntsch’s trial began on Feb. 2, 2017, and focused on the charge related to Efurd, injuring an elderly person.

She testified, but first, to show that her botched surgery was part of pattern, prosecutors — over objections from Duntsch’s attorneys — put a long line of his other patients and their relatives on the stand.

“You had people in walkers. You had people on crutches. You had people that could barely move. You had people that had lost loved ones,” Robbie McClung, Duntsch’s lead defense attorney, said. “You had all sorts of things that had gone wrong. Before we even get to Mary Efurd, you can see that it’s just … it’s going downhill. I mean, it’s going downhill fast.”

A screenshot shows Duntsch during a deposition. (District attorney's office)

Duntsch held up remarkably well, seeming calm in the certainty that he really was a good surgeon.

“I always thought when I looked at him, even when he was in his jail clothes, he exuded a confidence,” Richard Franklin, another member of the defense team, said. “And I could certainly understand why patients would trust him.”

Then Lazar and other experts walked the jury through a litany of Duntsch’s surgical missteps. Duntsch’s attorneys noticed a change come over him. He deflated before their eyes.

“I think that he thought he was doing pretty good,” Franklin said. “Really and truly, in his own mind. Until he actually heard from those experts up there.”

A key prosecution witness was Kimberly Morgan, who had been Duntsch’s surgical assistant from August 2011 through March 2012 and was also his ex-girlfriend. Morgan described Duntsch’s mercurial nature, vacillating from being kind and caring to patients to being angry and confrontational behind closed doors.

The prosecutors had Morgan read parts of an email Duntsch had sent to her in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, 2011, three weeks before he operated on Passmore at Baylor-Plano, the first of his surgical disasters.

The subject line of the email was “Occam’s Razor.” Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest explanation for anything is most likely the right one. The email rambled on for five profanity-laced pages, but Morgan delivered the most startling passage.

“Unfortunately, you cannot understand that I am building an empire and I am so far outside the box that the Earth is small and the sun is bright,” Duntsch had written. “I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold blooded killer.”

It took the jurors just hours to find Duntsch guilty of knowingly injuring Efurd. He was sentenced to life in prison. He’s currently incarcerated in Huntsville, about an hour outside Houston. On Sept. 18, his attorney filed an appeal in a Dallas court, arguing that the testimony on cases other than Efurd’s and the email read by Morgan unfairly influenced the jury.

In February, I visited Summers, Duntsch’s old football buddy-turned-patient, in his small apartment in downtown Memphis.

He remains in much the same condition as he awoke in after Duntsch operated on him, unable to move from the neck down. He requires 24-hour caregivers and sat, tipped back, in his power wheelchair, as I talked to him about Duntsch.

Summers seemed resigned to his injuries, to his friend’s role in them and to the systemic weaknesses that allow problem doctors to keep practicing. He said he tries not to think about Dallas anymore.

I asked him why he’d trusted Duntsch to be his doctor. He couldn’t say. He looked out the window.

He knew his friend could barely drive a car without getting lost, he said. He just assumed he had been better trained for neurosurgery.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. 

 

 

 

Murdered in his home while being black!

Thursday night, September 6th, while some people were contemplating burning their Nike gear because of an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a 26 year-old unarmed immigrant, Botham Shem Jean, was shot and killed while being black in his own home by a 30 year-old white female off duty Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, after supposedly entering an apartment she mistakenly thought was her own.

The same night Jean was killed, Nike aired its first 30th anniversary "Just Do It" ad, narrated by Colin Kaepernick, during the NFL season opener between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. 

Colin Kaepernick began his slient and peaceful protest, first by sitting and then by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick has clearly stated a number of times that his protest has nothing to do with disrespecting the flag or military, but is simply a stand against the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of mostly white police officers. Jean's killing is the most recent example of what Kaepernick's protest is about. 

Guyger told police she thought she was entering her own apartment not realizing she was on the wrong floor; she thought her home was being burglarized and opened fire, shot him twice in the chest, and killed him. Guyger, off-duty but still in uniform, was returning home from either a 12 or 15-hour shift Thursday night; she said she mistook  Jean's apartment for her own, which was a floor below in the same complex. Weird, given he had a red welcome mat at the door (she didn't) and presumably different stuff in his place, but okay.

Jean was a devout Christian and talented singer and worked as a risk assurance associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He earned a bachelor's degree at Harding University in Arkansas, where he had been a beloved worship leader. Jean described himself on LinkedIn as a "young professional, engaged in developing a career built upon integrity, dedication and relationships, leveraging useful technologies to gain an understanding of and add value in a range (of) industries, striving towards leadership in my career, my community and society." A college friend described him as "wildly popular, hugely successful, and an incredible leader…he was a gentleman and a scholar." 

In an affidavit released Monday, Guyger made several shady new claims. She said Jean's door was open; she didn't know it was the wrong apartment until after she shot him; she saw "a large silhouette" – cue myth of the big black dude – as she entered; and Jean "ignored" her "verbal commands" – in, lest we forget, his own apartment. At least two witnesses refute her; they say they heard a woman knocking on the closed door and saying "Let me in,” and Jean was too “meticulous” to ever leave his door ajar. Also Guyger, it turns out, has been here before: In May 2017, Guyger was called to assist another officer searching for a suspect. An affidavit indicates a man identified as Uvaldo Perez got out of a car and became combative with Guyger and another officer. A struggle began and Guyger fired her Taser at Perez, who wrested the weapon away from her. Guyger then drew her gun and shot Perez in the abdomen, the affidavit says. Guyger was not charged in the case.

Dallas police requested an arrest warrant Friday for Guyger after Jean’s death was ruled a homicide; it wasn't issued until Sunday, reportedly because the Texas Rangers took over the case and were still investigating. Guyger, a four-year veteran of the department, was charged with manslaughter, booked into Kaufman County jail that evening and was freed an hour later after posting $300,000 bond, according to jail records. Given the contradictions in Guyger's story, officials say she could face stiffer charges once her case goes to a grand jury.

Allison Jean flew to Dallas from the family’s native St. Lucia after the shooting. Her son will be buried on the Caribbean island Thursday.  “She took my life away, like my very own life,” said Jean's mother, Allison. “She has to face whatever the law says. The very Bible says to render to Caesar that which is Caesar so if Caesar says to pay a penalty for a life, then she has to pay.”

Brandt Jean, brother of Botham Jean, is comforted by his sister, Allisa Charles-Findley, as their mother, Allison, looks on during a news conference.

For now, his family is left to grieve and seek answers. They gathered this weekend for a vigil at Jean's Dallas church, where the congregation honored him with one of his favorite hymns, "My God is Real," and a friend compared him to holy men of the Bible who gave friends spiritual guidance and "evangelized every day." His loss, he said, is "a disservice to humanity." It's also why Kaepernick and so many others continue to speak out in righteous rage, said family attorney Benjamin Crump, who said Jean's death should "astonish most sensible Americans…Black people have been killed by police in some of the most arbitrary ways in America. Blacks have been killed for ‘driving while black’ in their automobiles, ‘walking while black’ in their neighborhoods and now ‘living while black’ in their own apartment."

Critics online echoed him. The harsh clear lesson, said one: "Suit. Tie. Christian. Respectable. At home. Black. Dead." Jean's mother Allison Jean, a former government official of St. Lucia, likewise cited the clear racism behind her son's murder in an interview, calmly arguing a white man would not have met the same grim fate. “Botham loved God. Botham loved you. Botham loved mankind," she said. "God loves us all the same, and this has to stop."

As I heard about this young man's life, I couldn't help but be reminded about my oldest son. My son, who will be 25 tomorrow has been actively involve in church since his youth. Like Jean, he sings in the choir, and  is currently a minister and founder of an organization dedicated to help others. This could have just as easily been either of my two sons. My thoughts and prays go out to the Jean family. Hopefully Jean's tragic death will open the eyes of those burning their Nike gear and help them realize that police killing unarmed people is a real problem that needs to first be acknowledged and then solved. 

White Cop found Guilty of Murder for Killing Black Teen

A Texas jury found a white former police officer who shot and killed Jordan Edwards, an unarmed black teenager last year guilty of murder. 

Roy Oliver fired three rifle rounds into a car full of teenagers, which included Edward's sixteen year old brother who was driving and another brother, as they were leaving a party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs in April 2017. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was unarmed and sitting in the passenger seat, was struck and killed. Edwards was a first-year student at Mesquite High School where he played football. 

The Texas high school football team that Jordan Edwards had been a part of prior to his untimely death

Edwards' brother was held in police custody overnight for the purpose of questioning him as a witness. Police originally claimed there was alcohol present, during the trial, the jury learned there was no alcohol present at the party, despite what police had initially said. 

"It's been a hard year … I'm just really happy," Edwards's father, Odell, told reporters at the court after the verdict on Tuesday. 

Jordan Edwards with his father, Odell, in a family photo.

At the time of the shooting, Oliver claimed the vehicle was trying to run over his partner, but several witness accounts and body-cam footage showed the car was moving away from the officer. A vigil was held at Edwards's school on the evening of May 1, 2017. A lawyer for Edwards' family demanded the arrest of Oliver.

Oliver was placed on administrative leave following the shooting and fired from the Balch Springs police force on May 2, 2017 after police admitted the video of the shooting contradicted Oliver's initial statement. 

Police originally stated there was an "unknown altercation with a vehicle backing down the street towards the officers in an aggressive manner". After reviewing body cam footage, Police Chief Jonathan Haber later admitted that the vehicle was not moving toward the officers, but rather away from them.

Local reporters, who were present in the courtroom on Tuesday as the verdict was read, reported that there were hugs, claps and cheers from the family of Edwards. 

Oliver faces between five and 99 years in prison for the murder. His sentencing hearing began immediately after the trial. The former police officer was acquitted of manslaughter and aggravated assault. 

Daryl Washington, Edwards's lawyer, said the verdict is not just about justice for the young teenager's family but for the families of all unarmed black people killed by police. 

"This case is not just about Jordan," Washington told reporters, adding that "it's about Tamir Rice, it's about Walter Scott, it's about Alton Sterling, it's about every unarmed African American who has been killed and who has not got justice". 

According to the Washington Post Fatal Force database, more than 980 people were killed by police in 2017. 

The Guardian identified more than 1,090 police killings the previous year.

Nearly a quarter of those killed by police in 2016 were African Americans, although the group accounted for roughly 12 percent of the total US population.

According to watchdog group The Sentencing Project, African American men are six times more likely to be arrested than white men.

These disparities, particularly the killing of African Americans by police, has prompted the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a popular civil rights movement aimed at ending police violence and dismantling structural racism.


For additional information and details, see: "Flashback: Jordan Edwards' stepbrother recounts harrowing night, hearing cop's fatal shots," from the Dallas Moring News which includes links to 38 other articles related to Jordan Edwards.

I went from prison to professor – here’s why criminal records should not be used to keep people out of college

By Stanley Andrisse, Howard University

Beginning next year, the Common Application – an online form that enables students to apply to the 800 or so colleges that use it – will no longer ask students about their criminal pasts.

As a formerly incarcerated person who now is now an endocrinologist and professor at two world-renowned medical institutions – Johns Hopkins Medicine and Howard University College of Medicine – I believe this move is a positive one. People’s prior convictions should not be held against them in their pursuit of higher learning.

File 20180815 2915 1l5lr0z.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The U.S. leads the world in the rate of incarceration. kittirat roekburi/www.shutterstock.com

While I am enthusiastic about the decision to remove the criminal history question from the Common Application, I also believe more must be done to remove the various barriers that exist between formerly incarcerated individuals such as myself and higher education.

I make this argument not only as a formerly incarcerated person who now teaches aspiring medical doctors, but also as an advocate for people with criminal convictions. The organization I lead – From Prison Cells to PhD – helped push for the change on the Common Application.

My own story stands as a testament to the fact that today’s incarcerated person could become tomorrow’s professor. A person who once sold illegal drugs on the street could become tomorrow’s medical doctor. But this can only happen if such a person, and the many others in similar situations, are given the chance.

There was a time not so long ago when some in the legal system believed I did not deserve a chance. With three felony convictions, I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking as a prior and persistent career criminal. My prosecuting attorney once stated that I had no hope for change.

Today, I am Dr. Stanley Andrisse. As a professor at Johns Hopkins and Howard University, I now help train students who want to be doctors. I’d say that I have changed. Education was transformative.

US incarceration rates the highest

The United States needs to have more of this transformative power of education. The country incarcerates more people and at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. The U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the world population but nearly 25 percent of the incarcerated population around the globe.

Roughly 2.2 million people in the United States are essentially locked away in cages. About 1 in 5 of those people are locked up for drug offenses.

“‘How I Learned to Read – and Trade Stocks – in Prison,’ by Curtis ‘Wall Street’ Carroll.

I was one of those people in prison not so long ago.

Early life of crime

Growing up in the Ferguson, North St. Louis area, I started selling drugs and getting involved with other crimes at a very young age. I was arrested for the first time at age 14. By age 17, I was moving substantial amounts of drugs across the state of Missouri and the country. By my early 20s, I found myself sitting in front of a judge and facing 20 years to life for drug trafficking charges. The judge sentenced me to 10 years in state prison.

When I stood in front of that judge, school was not really my thing.

Although I was a successful student athlete and received a near full scholarship to play football for Lindenwood University, a Division II college football program, I found it difficult to get out of the drug business. Suffice it to say, there were people in the drug world who wanted me to keep moving drugs. And they made it clear that they would be extremely disappointed if I were to suddenly stop. So I continued. For this reason, I didn’t view my undergraduate college experience the way I view education now.

The transformative power of education

Education provides opportunities for people with criminal records to move beyond their experience with the penal system and reach their full potential. The more education a person has, the higher their income. Similarly, the more education a person has, the less likely they are to return to prison.

A 2013 analysis of several studies found that obtaining higher education reduced recidivism – the rate of returning to prison – by 43 percent and was four to five times less costly than re-incarcerating that person. The bottom line is education increases personal income and reduces crime.

Despite these facts, education is woefully lacking among those being held in America’s jails and prisons. Nearly 30 percent of America’s incarcerated – about 690,000 people – are released each year and only 60 percent of those individuals have a GED or high school diploma, compared to 90 percent of the overall of U.S. population over age 25. And less than 3 percent of the people released from incarceration each year have a college degree, compared to 40 percent of the U.S. population.

Rejected by colleges

I had a bachelor’s degree by the time I went to prison but never got the chance to put it to use. Then something tragic happened while I was serving time that prompted me to see the need to further my education. Due to complications of diabetes, my father had his legs amputated. He fell into a coma and lost his battle with Type 2 diabetes. I was devastated. This experience made me want to learn more about how to fight this disease.

While incarcerated, I applied to six biomedical graduate programs. I was rejected from all but one – Saint Louis University. Notably, I had a mentor from Saint Louis University who served on the admission committee. Without that personal connection, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten a second chance.

I finished near the top of my graduate school class, suggesting that I was likely qualified for the programs that rejected me.

Restore Pell grants to incarcerated people 

Based on the difficulty I experienced in going from prison to becoming a college professor, I believe there are things that should be done to remove barriers for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people who wish to pursue higher education.

One of those barriers is cost. When the government removed Pell funding from prisons by issuing the "tough on crime” Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the vast majority of colleges offering courses in prison stopped. Due to the federal ban on receiving Pell grants while incarcerated, most of those serving time are not able to afford to take college courses while in prison. The Obama administration took a step toward trying to restore Pell grants for those in prison with the Second Chance Pell pilot. The program has given over 12,000 incarcerated individuals across the nation the chance to use Pell grants toward college courses in prison.

Inmate Terrell Johnson, a participant in the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, speaks with then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2015. Patrick Semansky/AP

Through the program, 67 colleges and universities are working with over 100 prisons to provide college courses to the incarcerated.

Under the Trump administration, this program is at-risk of being discontinued at the end of 2018. Historically, some have argued that allowing Pell dollars to be used by those in prison takes precious Pell dollars from people who did not violate the law. However, the current Second Chance Pell pilot funding being directed to prisons, $30 million, accounts for 0.1 percent of the total $28 billion of Pell funding. Even if the program were expanded, based on historical levels, it would still amount to one-half of 1 percent of all Pell funding. This is justified by the impact that Pell dollars would have in prison in terms of reducing recidivism.

Remove questions about drug crimes from federal aid forms

Federal policymakers could increase opportunities by removing Question 23 on the federal student aid form that asks if applicants have been convicted of drug crimes. A 2015 study found that nearly 66 percent of would-be undergraduates who disclosed a conviction on their college application did not finish their application.

Federal student aid applicants likely feel the same discouragement. I felt discouraged myself when I was applying to graduate programs when I came across the question about whether I had ever been convicted of a crime. It made me feel like I was nothing more than a criminal in the eyes of the college gatekeepers.

This question also disproportionately effects people of color, since people of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the question runs the risk of making formerly incarcerated people feel isolated and less valuable than those who’ve never gotten in trouble with the law.

When people who have been incarcerated begin to feel like they don’t belong and higher education is not for them, our nation will likely not be able to realize their potential and hidden talents.

It will be as if we have locked them up and thrown away the key.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation

Citizenship through the eyes of those who have lost the right to vote

By Kimberly R. Kras, University of Massachusetts Lowell

A fundamental right of U.S. citizenship is having your voice heard by voting to elect representatives. However, at least 6 million U.S. citizens cannot vote in the United States because they have been convicted of a felony.

Losing the right to vote is among numerous other consequences of being convicted of a crime. This so-called “civil death” suggests that person is considered dead to society. The larger political consequence is a lack of representation in government of a large group of citizens who are largely poor and people of color.

I study the impact of being convicted on individuals and communities. States have a variety of rules and regulations when it comes to voting rights and felony convictions. In some states, when a person is convicted they are barred from voting until they successfully complete prison, probation or parole. But in 12 states, people convicted of felonies are barred from voting for life.

In response to growing concern that these laws disenfranchise large segments of America’s citizens, several states have recently made substantial, yet controversial, changes to voting rights of ex-felons. This may be a growing movement.

Voting rights and felony convictions

In 2016, Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe took executive action to restore voting rights to at least 173,000 ex-felons. In April, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order to restore voting rights to felons on parole.

Florida may be next in line for change.

In July, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about whether laws excluding felons from the right to vote are constitutional. In November, the state will vote on a ballot measure to restore ex-felon’s voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence.

These decisions will impact a large segment of Florida’s voting-age population and continue to build a strong precedent for other states.

Florida has historically played an important role in American elections. Yet roughly 10 percent of Floridians can’t vote because they have been convicted of felonies. Research suggests that had these Americans been able to cast their vote for president in the 2000 election, Florida would have been a blue state. Studies show that ex-felons largely vote Democrat, and in this case would have made an impact in a presidential election.

However, critics point out that many felons do not vote even if their rights are restored.

That may be true, but research shows that for many ex-felons it’s because they don’t know they can. This means fewer people have input in electing representatives who generally support causes important to them such as rehabilitation for offenders and criminal justice reform.

Crime and the social contract

Some pundits and legal scholars argue that felons should not be eligible to vote because when people commit crime they violate the “social contract.” The social contract is the agreement among citizens to abide by rules and laws for the good of society. This reasoning says that those who break it, say by committing a crime, are no longer entitled to the benefits of the contract, such as political representation.

People who study criminal behavior often say the opposite is true. They argue that restoring voting rights may in fact reinstate the social contract and improve factors that led the individual to commit crime in the first place.

In research I conducted, and headed by professors Beth Huebner and Timothy Bynum, we spoke with people returning from prison about how their felony conviction impacted their life after release. One participant whose name is protected under a confidentiality agreement, stated: “Not being able to vote restricts our voice.”

Another participant stated how his inability to vote about things important to him, like justice reform, meant that other voters might reinforce laws and restrictions that affect him: “Those are usually the people who want to put harsher rules and penalties and categorize everybody the same. I feel that they allow more and more of those laws to be piled on us because we’re not allowed to speak our minds.”

Americans who have been convicted and stripped of their right to vote often feel that they can’t see themselves as citizens who are giving back to the community if they are denied participation in the political process.

Restoring voting rights signals to all citizens that those who have served their time for a past crime can participate in a key mechanism of civic engagement: voting. Participating in civic life is associated with reductions in recidivism, so an inclusive approach to democracy can only strengthen the political process. That’s because the interests of more Americans, especially those historically silenced, will be heard through their vote.

Ex-felons as citizens

Moreover, research has shown that denying voting rights impacts not just individuals, but also families and entire communities, especially those typically underrepresented in political arenas like people of color and those in poverty. For example, partners of ex-felons are less likely to vote.

In 2016, approximately 70 percent of individuals in prison were people of color, despite making up only 25 percent of the U.S. population. Researchers attribute some of this racial disparity to sentencing laws and policies resembling what’s been termed by Michelle Alexander as “The New Jim Crow.” 

Restricting ex-felons from voting really says that, if you have committed a crime in the U.S., you can never be a full citizen again, even after serving punishment. That message suggests that they are always second- or third-class citizens.

The ConversationBut studies have shown that when people are reintegrated meaningfully in our society, the chances that they return to prison are reduced and the public is safer. Without the right to vote, ex-felons have less of a benefit or an interest in contributing positively to our communities. Being fully engaged in your community and having a voice in what happens to you are vital connections to others in the community – connections that can act to reduce crime. Voting rights represent the epitome of what it means to be a U.S. citizen.


Republished with permission from The Conversation


The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement